Opera is a genre defined by the synthesis of arts. Story-telling poetry is set to music and infused with theatrical drama—choreography, set design, and costuming complete the artistic gestalt. The operatic goal is to integrate these elements into something cohesive, and making decisions that will offer a fresh take on an oft-performed work is notoriously difficult.
Seattle Opera strove to break standard production modes in their 2015-16 season opener Nabucco, and for that they should be commended. Their contemporary vision, spearheaded by stage director François Racine, harkens back to the original performance practice of the 1842 production, in which the singers were further downstage and more able to cultivate a relationship with their sociable, house-lit audience—a far cry from the reverent, darkened-room opera production encouraged by Richard Wagner and his successors.
Audience connection to the operatic narrative is more difficult in today’s performance practice. Seattle Opera and General Director Aidan Lang attempted to alleviate this alienation by placing the orchestra onstage, forcing the playing space downstage, and using projections instead of set pieces to negate any unnecessary and artificial story delays. It’s a step in the right direction in staying fresh and relevant—crucial endeavor at the moment, given the perilous state of live opera and opera houses today.
But opera is drama, as they say, and the innovation gained by unconventional production choices was not enough to cover Nabucco’s lack of dramatic cohesion. Even the reduced stage space cannot explain the inactive and uninspired blocking, and I found myself mentally echoing my high school drama teacher’s exasperated pleas of “what’s your motivation?” upon every apathetic stage cross. Any possibility for interaction between the principal characters and the chorus was negated by the latter’s placement behind the orchestra. Not only did this choice split the stage and diminish dramatic potential, but it also had the drastic side effect of weakening the immaculate ensemble singing achieved by chorusmaster John Keene and the Seattle Opera Chorus.
Video projections, designed by Robert Bonniol of MODE Studios, were intended to take on the role of evoking location and differentiating the warring Hebrews and Babylonians. However, the images fell flat; CGI representations of vague temples and psychological abstractions were more confusing than intriguing, their only achievement being a hugely noticeable disconnect when juxtaposed again the highly traditional costuming. This bizarre combination of abstract set and conventional costuming had a dizzying result. While I would love to believe that the juxtaposition was intentional and meant to mirror the psychological instability of Nabucco and Abigaille, or the irresolvable differences between the Hebrews and Babylonians, the effect was amateur, as if they were renting costumes from their local theatre and relying on a graphic designer whose specialty is visuals for techno shows.
Drama and presentation aside, performance and delivery from the principal singers were equally hit-or-miss. Mary Elizabeth Williams almost single-handedly kept the show afloat with her astounding performance of Abigaille, a role notorious for its vocal acrobatics, massive leaps and range of extreme emotions. Despite a pitchy and rather weighty start to the show, Williams blossomed into the role in her Act II cavatina, demonstrating exquisite vocal precision and a sense of dramatic urgency that delivered a shot of much-needed tension into the show.
Williams’s entrancing performance was unfortunately unmet by the other primary characters; Gordon Hawkins’s Nabucco was clumsy in both dramatics and vocal prowess. The lead-up to Nabucco’s insanity and the “mad scene” towards the end of Act II has an unsettling dramatic escalation built right into both the libretto and the music, but the scene demands a singer with more theatrical agility than Hawkins was able to muster. Equally unimpressive was his woofy tone and weak projection, completely at odds with his power-hungry, ruthless, and unstable character. Some slight redemption for Hawkins’s performance was achieved in his Act IV plea for forgiveness; his voice regained some core, and moments of flawless recitative delivery revealed his Wagnerian training.
Several other performers deserve commendation: Russell Thomas inhabited his character of Ismaele perfectly, portraying the fierce love and loyalty to Fenena just as well as his fear of persecution. Thomas’s arias were delivered forcefully and passionately, diminished only by his tendency to cover his resonance on more tender passages. Eric Neuville also performed a perfect Abdallo—a bit role, to be sure, but one delivered with perfect tone and as much drama as possible for a minor character.
Divine blend and perfect melodic expression was achieved by the chorus, whose gorgeous “Va, pensiero” would have brought tears to any Italian’s eyes. The orchestra also gave an admirable performance under the baton of Carlo Montanaro, capturing Verdi’s quick energy and soaring melodies despite Montanaro’s overconducting. However, wonderful performances by both the chorus and the orchestra actually manifested as a disadvantage in this case, as it was a rare moment that the orchestra did not overpower the singers, and there seemed to be more pitch issues and rhythmic disparity between the principals and the orchestra because of the awkward placement. If Seattle Opera aims to keep experimenting with the orchestra’s placement, acoustical balance should be at the heart of future staging endeavors.
Seattle Opera’s Nabucco is proof of the need for theatrical considerations in what is largely still seen as a musical art. Opera and drama are completely intertwined (so said Wagner in his pivotal essay “Oper und Drama”) and a company so ingrained in Wagnerian history and performance would do well to take that belief to heart.
Nabucco closes August 22. Along with several lesser-known shows, Seattle Opera’s season is revisiting beloved works this year, in what they are dubbing the “Opera Classics Series” – their next major production is Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, October 17-31. Get your tickets here or by calling 206-389-7676.