Saturday, December 11, 2010

Music review: Supporting characters shine brighter in PB Opera's 'Nabucco'

Mark Rucker as Nabucco.


By Greg Stepanich

It takes a lot of big singing to fill up all‭ ‬the space in the static tableaux of Verdi‭’‬s‭ ‬Nabucco.

And on Friday night at the Palm Beach Opera,‭ ‬most of that sonic filling was provided by‭ ‬two singers other than the principals:‭ ‬a sonorous bass as Zaccaria and a thrilling tenor as Ismaele.

For its first production in‭ ‬25‭ ‬years of Verdi‭’‬s breakthrough‭ ‬1842‭ ‬Biblical drama,‭ ‬Palm Beach Opera has called on two veteran singers,‭ ‬baritone Mark Rucker as Nabucco and soprano Paoletta Marrocu as Abigaille.‭ ‬Both vocalists have sung these roles many‭ ‬times,‭ ‬and that was evident in their acting‭; ‬it can safely be said both musicians made the very most of the stage parts of their roles.

But in the case of Marrocu,‭ ‬her singing was distinctly variable,‭ ‬sometimes‭ ‬large and commanding,‭ ‬and‭ ‬at other times overblown,‭ ‬ragged,‭ ‬or under pitch.‭ ‬At its best in Friday night‭’‬s performance at the Kravis Center‭ (‬the Act III duet with Nabucco,‭ ‬Oh di qual onta aggravasi‭)‬,‭ ‬it‭’‬s a voice with power and attractive colors,‭ ‬especially‭ ‬in the lowest register.

Still,‭ ‬Marrocu was not in great voice‭ ‬overall‭ ‬Friday night,‭ ‬skipping the‭ ‬famous interpolated‭ ‬high C in the‭ ‬Salgo gìa cabaletta that ends the first scene of Act II,‭ ‬and while she had a strong stage presence,‭ ‬it‭’‬s the singing that needs to fill the room,‭ ‬and she was only able to do that occasionally.

Rucker‭’‬s voice was much more consistent.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a very pleasant‭ ‬baritone‭ ‬instrument,‭ ‬nicely focused‭ ‬if not especially large,‭ ‬and‭ ‬it‭’‬s‭ ‬well-rounded across its range.‭ ‬Despite some stiffness in his stage movements,‭ ‬he‭ ‬sang‭ ‬and acted‭ ‬with real subtlety in a part that doesn‭’‬t have a lot‭ ‬of it,‭ ‬trying his best to add emotional confusion to his moments of kingly madness.‭

His singing got noticeably warmer and more engaging in Acts III and IV,‭ ‬and his‭ ‬Dio de Giuda at the end was heartfelt and effective.‭ ‬He was a persuasive if not dominating Nabucco,‭ ‬one whose work in this role might be better appreciated in a concert setting.

Paoletta Marrocu as Abigaille in Palm Beach Opera's Nabucco.

The most exciting singing of this opening night‭ ‬of the company‭’‬s‭ ‬49th season‭ ‬came from Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria,‭ ‬the high priest of the Jews,‭ ‬and Adam Diegel as Ismaele,‭ ‬lover of Fenena.‭

Belosselskiy,‭ ‬a Ukrainian-born musician,‭ ‬has one of those big,‭ ‬beautiful bass voices that infuses everything he sings with authority.‭ ‬He was particularly good in the lovely‭ ‬Tu sul labbro,‭ ‬the Act II prayer with its‭ ‬radiant six-cello accompaniment,‭ ‬but everything he did was worth listening to,‭ ‬and one welcomed his return to the stage each time he appeared.

It‭’‬s not for nothing that when Montserrat Caballé wanted to introduce a new tenor named José Carreras,‭ ‬she had him first appear as Ismaele,‭ ‬because while it‭’‬s a small role,‭ ‬it‭’‬s aggressive and passionate,‭ ‬and a perfect spotlight for a fresh new voice.‭ ‬Diegel,‭ ‬who was an excellent Don José‭ ‬for Florida Grand Opera‭’‬s‭ ‬Carmen‭ ‬last season,‭ ‬was a terrific Ismaele,‭ ‬with a‭ ‬vivid‭ ‬spinto that ideally embodied the character of‭ ‬the young lover who would sacrifice his life for his captive people.

Almost as good was mezzo‭ ‬Laura Vlasak Nolen as Fenena,‭ ‬whose‭ ‬voice was weighty and strong in the‭ ‬Io t‭’‬amava trio of Act I,‭ ‬and‭ ‬sweetly pure in her‭ ‬O di schiuso‭ ‬è il firmamento aria in Act IV,‭ ‬where the richness of her singing across a wide range could clearly be heard.

Harold Wilson as the high priest of Baal was decently effective,‭ ‬but Evanivaldo Correa‭’‬s Abdallo was underpowered.‭ ‬And while no one knew who Alison Bates was when she took her curtain call as Anna,‭ ‬her large,‭ ‬powerful soprano commanded instant attention as it soared above the rest of the chorus in the massed numbers of the final act.‭ ‬One looks forward to her future appearances as a member of the company‭’‬s Young Artists troupe.

The chorus had the first curtain call along with chorus master Greg Ritchey,‭ ‬as was only fitting for such a chorus-heavy opera,‭ ‬and in truth they sang‭ ‬well most of the evening,‭ ‬especially in the most celebrated moment,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Va,‭ ‬pensiero‭ ‬of Act III,‭ ‬and in the closing‭ ‬Immenso Jeovha of the last act,‭ ‬which was suitably forceful.‭ ‬The men,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬ran into some‭ ‬real‭ ‬trouble‭ ‬in Act II‭’‬s‭ ‬Il maledetto non ha fratelli,‭ ‬which apparently was much too fast for them to‭ ‬be able to‭ ‬keep up and maintain their diction.

Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria in Palm Beach Opera's Nabucco.

Conductor Bruno Aprea,‭ ‬who led a very vigorous‭ ‬Norma two seasons ago,‭ ‬brought the same kind of relentless drive to early Verdi as he did to Bellini,‭ ‬and one gets the sense that he likes to champion early‭ ‬19th-century Italian opera above all.‭ ‬And he made a good case for it:‭ ‬This was a swiftly led,‭ ‬highly colored‭ ‬Nabucco,‭ ‬and its pace and fire,‭ ‬which tells us a lot about the innovations Verdi brought to this art form,‭ ‬would have been easier to appreciate had the show opened on time,‭ ‬and had the intermission before Act II not been somewhat too lengthy.

The orchestra he had on hand,‭ ‬filled with some of the best musicians in the area,‭ ‬was very good,‭ ‬from the exposed brass soli in the overture to the solo flute work at the end,‭ ‬with the cello sextet playing in‭ ‬Tu sul labbro especially fine.‭

The sets from the Opera de Montreal were‭ ‬very‭ ‬spare and centered on focalpoints‭ ‬such as a huge head of Baal,‭ ‬while the costumes‭ ‬(also from the Canadian company‭) ‬were‭ ‬overwhelmingly modest and straight out of a Sunday school textbook,‭ ‬shunning big headdresses for Zaccaria and Nabucco,‭ ‬which was debatably acceptable,‭ ‬and any sense of sexuality for Abigaille‭ ‬and Fenena,‭ ‬which was‭ ‬not.‭ ‬Nabucco is also a love story,‭ ‬and clothing Fenena in a shapeless semi-burqa makes no sense if you want to bring out that element of the opera,‭ ‬her subject status notwithstanding.

Guy Montavon‭’‬s staging‭ ‬was clean but too rigid,‭ ‬which gave the whole production an offputting sense of awkwardness and unreality.‭ ‬The chorus moved in big,‭ ‬orderly blocks on and off rather than like crowds,‭ ‬and there was too little interaction among the characters in general,‭ ‬so that it was hard to figure‭ ‬out how everyone related to each other and to follow the story.

It would have helped,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬to have an actual sound to go along with the lightning bolt that hits Nabucco in Act II,‭ ‬and the wisps of smoke rising from the temple‭ ‬at the end of Act I‭ ‬looked like a toaster accident rather than an act of war.

Nabucco‭ ‬continues tonight at the Kravis Center with Sebastian Catana as Nabucco and Csilla Boross as Abigaille.‭ ‬Rucker and Marrocu return on Sunday afternoon,‭ ‬Catana and Boross on Monday afternoon.‭ ‬Tonight‭’‬s‭ ‬performance begins at‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬and Sunday and Monday‭’‬s shows are set for‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$23-$175,‭ ‬and can be had by calling the Kravis box office at‭ ‬832-7469‭ ‬or visting‭ ‬www.kravis.org,‭ ‬or by calling the opera at‭ ‬833-7888‭ ‬or visiting‭ ‬www.pbopera.org.

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