'Nabucco': early Verdi lovingly produced

April 26, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The Baltimore Opera Company's season-closing performances of Verdi's "Nabucco" -- which will be repeated Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at the Lyric Opera House -- shouldn't be missed. This is great, early Verdi that one rarely gets to hear live. And this production -- borrowed (including most of the principal singers) from the Montreal Opera -- is a lovely one. Though the cast does occasionally remind one that there are few genuine Verdi voices around, the incredible force of the young Verdi's flair for melody and drama strikes the listener between the ears and the eyes.

This opera about the Babylonian captivity of the Jews has been intelligently staged by Irving Guttman and boasts striking sets by Claude Girard. It also has one extraordinary voice in soprano Linda Roark-Strummer, as Abigaille, the warrior princess, who is the villain of the piece. This is Verdi's first great soprano role and one of the greatest in the repertory. Except for a recording of an excerpt from the opera by Maria Callas, this listener has never heard the role done better.

The voice is immense, mostly beautiful (particularly in soft singing) and the characterization -- while intelligently thought out -- is absolutely wild. Anyone who listens to Roark-Strummer in the ferocious scene in which she discovers that she is not Nabucco's daughter -- that she is, in fact, the offspring of slaves -- and who does not feel the hair on his arms rise needs to have his vital signs checked.

The rest of the cast was, understandably, not as strong. As Nabucco himself, James Dietsch's voice had a veiled quality and his portrayal, while sufficiently affecting in its tender moments in the closing acts, was not intense enough. As Zaccaria, the high priest, Louis Lebherz gave a strong, beautifully sung performance, though his voice did not always strike one as ideally rich. As Ismaele, the Hebrew captain, William Lewis sometimes sounded as if he was straining. But as Fenena, the Babylonian princess with whom Ismaele is in love, Corina Circa was sweet and sure of tone. The singers in smaller parts were impressive: Joanna Porackova's brilliant-voiced Anna; Robert Cantrell's stately High Priest of Baal; and John Weber's good-hearted Abdallo, captain of the Babylonian guard. The orchestra played convincingly under the idiomatic leadership of Joseph Recigno.

This is a piece in which the chorus is crucial -- it contains the composer's immortal "Va, pensiero" -- and the choristers were always equal to Verdi's wonderful inspiration. One caveat: This is the second time this season that the BOC has elected to perform an opera -- "Turandot" was the other occasion -- in which the size of the chorus (there were 45 singers when there should have been closer to 70) shortchanged the music.

But the strength with which the chorus performed made news heard after Saturday's performance all the sadder. Chorus master Tom Hall, who is also the music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, will be resigning his post with the opera at the conclusion of this production.

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