Giuseppe Verdi reminds opera-goers what’s grand about grand opera in his early work, “Nabucco,” not seen at San Diego Opera since Verdi Festival times around 28 years ago. The choruses are numerous, immense and impactful and, in this production, rife with artistry. Under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons, the 60-member San Diego Opera chorus is much admired, and the famed “Va, pensiero” as staged by Lotfi Mansouri is a visual and aural moment never to be forgotten.
The debilitated Hebrews lie on the banks of the Euphrates River, having been defeated and imprisoned by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabucco). Their thoughts and prayers take them to their beloved homeland. The great work swells from triple pianissimo to forte, and still they lie as if dust.
If “Nabucco” were a sport it would be an extreme one, and for this reason the opera is not often performed. The title role is sung by baritone Richard Paul Fink, who learned it in less than a month to step in for Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic. Fink possesses the requisite Verdian style and a well-employed voice with a burnished and ringing top. As Nabucco moves from tyrant to benevolent ruler and father, Fink’s acting ability is manifest, especially in the redemption scene and in his 11th hour reconciliation with his usurping daughter, Abigaille.
French soprano Sylvie Valayre, who made her San Diego Opera debut as Tosca last season, takes on Abigaille. Her voice is rich in the low register, and she is capable of the leaps written by the young Verdi. Her high pianissimo is extraordinary, she is a fine actor, and if her coloratura is not always crisp, she can be forgiven. This role is a soprano killer.
In his SDO debut, bass Raymond Aceto impresses mightily with a smoothly produced voice of huge range. He is an imposing figure in his Jerusalem high priest garb. Handsome American tenor Arthur Shen also impresses in his SDO debut as Ismaele, beloved of both Nabucco’s daughters, Abigaille and Fenena. Susan Poretsky made a vocally tentative start as Fenena, but marshaled her forces for the big ensembles to come. The company is completed by Priti Gandhi as Anna, Zaccaria’s sister; Alfred Walker as the High Priest of Baal; and Joseph Hu as Abdallo, Nabucco’s retainer.
Edoardo Müller and San Diego Symphony are in the pit to play Verdi’s score, which portends all to come in the way of magnificence. The horns and woodwinds are particularly strong, and the strings, especially in the chamber music-like accompaniments in quieter moments, magnificent.
The opera has its memorable impact in the larger moments where trios evolve into sextets accompanied by full chorus, with soloists singing their hearts out, soaring above the throng.
Michael Yeargan’s wonderful set works accommodates the multitudes. There’s a large upstage platform with immense “windows” that allow scenic projections to indicate locale, another lower platform and numerous stairs act as risers and playing areas. Costume designers Jane Greenwood and Marie-Louis Waleck put the Babylonians in bright red and the Hebrews in black and white so it’s easy to tell them apart. Lighting designer is Michael Whitfield and the all-important wig and makeup designer is Steven W. Bryant.
If you long for operatic revitalization, do not miss “Nabucco.”
Remaining performances take place at the Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. For tickets and info, call (619) 533-7000, or visit www.sdopera.com.