An opening parenthesis: the première of the opera was performed at La Scala in 1842 in an Italy under the domination of Austria. The performance begins with a well-heeled Austrian public arriving at La Scala for the show, taking their places in three levels of loges off to the left of the stage. They watched the opera with us.
Photomontage from the Montréal production
This historical parenthesis (remember that parentheses come in twos, so you will see how that closes toward the end) excused the set, which I found rather flat and painted, unlike the inventive and dynamic sets I am used to from the Opéra de Montréal. But when I say it was excused, I mean it: the set for Nabucco was as a set would have been at La Scala in 1842. Once I accepted that, I calmed down about the quality of the set and appreciated it.
Costumes! There was a whole lot of fabric on that stage tonight. From the fabric-draped Hebrews (no exposing the hair!) to the rich robes of the Assyrians and especially the red and yellow burka-like robes of the priests of Baal all the way back to the front of the stage on the left where the Austrian opera-goers and the soldiers of the 19th century were installed — this was an amazing feat of costuming. Just the notion of producing outfits from two very different eras for the same production earns my applause, doing it well gets me on my feet.
Hebrew Slave Chorus (not from the Montréal production)
The singing! Apart from the fact that the music is quite lovely — there’s something I like about Italian operas with multiple duets, trios and quartets singing in parallel and backed up by a large chorus — the performers here acquitted themselves with flair and talent. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli in the role of Nabucco was excellent, and I so enjoyed soprano Tatiana Melnychenko in the role of Abigaille that I found myself coming down on her side, even if she was evil and doomed to die by the end. Team Abigaille all the way! I would also make special mention of bass Ievgen Orlov in the role of Zaccaria, who sang quite beautifully. I’m not trying to slight anyone else by not naming them; these three really stood out for me.
The closing parenthesis was the twist that really sold me. The opera finished, the principal characters come to take their bows. Not to us, mind you, but to the Austrian audience off to the side. A small bouquet is thrown for the baritone lead. He looks at it, picks it up and throws it angrily back toward the Austrian audience. The whole cast emerges to sing a patriotic Italian song set to the tune of the Hebrew Slave Chorus, with Italian flags held aloft in the background. While the use of the modern tricolour flag lacks historical accuracy, it helped us to understand in a glance what was going on and to appreciate the brilliance of the parentheses around the opera. Bravo!
Of course, there is always the possibility that this is the way Nabucco is always staged and I have just exposed my ignorance for all to see. Oh well.
Oh, and as an extra: swag! Because I am a subscriber, I and my friend both made off with a lovely reusable Opéra de Montréal bag. It will be my pleasure to promote them as I parade around town with it.