The cast and orchestra of Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco.” Photo by Philip Newton
The cast and orchestra of Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco.” Photo by Philip Newton
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Seattle Opera’s courtly modern bow to the roots of Verdi’s “Nabucco” may not fully succeed, but this is still one powerfully mesmerizing production.

“Nabucco” is a retelling of the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the mad king of Babylon who sets out to conquer Jerusalem. A wrench is thrown into the works when Nabucco’s daughters, Fenena and Abigaille, fall for the Jew Ismaele. When Ismaele returns Fenena’s love and rejects the ambitious Abigaille, who discovers she is actually the daughter of a slave, an onslaught of fury, revenge, religious conversion and redemption are set in motion.

When “Nabucco” premiered in 1842, catapulting Verdi to fame, singers and audience communicated more directly than they do today. Footlights forced the singers near the audience to be seen. Lighting that allowed the audience to read the libretto made their faces visible to the singers.

To give the Seattle Opera audience the feeling of that intimacy, the production shifts the musicians up onto the stage. This moves the principal singers onto the covered orchestra pit in front of the musicians and closer to the audience, with the chorus behind the orchestra.

The trouble is that my companion and a friend of ours found themselves frequently watching the orchestra and the conductor’s hands, instead of the singers. Principals communicating with the chorus across a small sea of musicians also diverted them.

However, none of that was an issue for me. Director Francois Racine’s judicious staging held my attention, even at its most subdued in reverential moments, with deft characterization. Being closer, to me, gave the performance more visceral impact.

In a modern riff on the flown two-dimensional sets of 1842, the production implies locations through projections by video designer Robert Bonniol, together with occasional set pieces by set designer Robert Schaub and sumptuous costumes by Ginette Grenier. While some of the images are confusingly abstract, others are spot-on, including the clever destruction of an idol. Unfortunately, the movement of the projections and the curtains framing them is sometimes distracting.

But lighting by designer Duane Schuler boldly uses color to effectively complement projections and set.

Written before Verdi knew better than to put singers’ voices in harm’s way, the pivotal role of Abigaille is reputed to have destroyed at least two singers’ voices. On opening night, Mary Elizabeth Williams was a fearsome force of nature as the wrathful Abigaille. She scaled the taxing coloratura runs with seeming ease and remained strong at the top and bottom of the score’s demands, even in her most heroic soprano voice. Hearing the yearning in Williams’ almost-delicate lyric soprano during Abigaille’s aria “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” I actually felt sorry for the villainous Abigaille.

The chorus was as awe-inspiring as Williams. Their poignant longing for their home in “Va, pensiero” and its extended final note rightfully garnered the longest round of applause besides the curtain call.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins was a commanding presence in the title role, yet kept his dulcet sound even in his top notes.

As the Jews’ High Priest, Christian Van Horn lived up to his reputation as a noteworthy young bass. He had a reassuringly imposing resonance, edged with warmth that made us want to follow his Zaccaria anywhere.

Tenor Russell Thomas as Ismaele and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena were well matched as the lovers. Conductor Carlo Montanaro and his orchestra provided a spirited, nuanced foundation for this compelling production.

Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Saturday, Aug. 22. For tickets or information, call (206) 389-7676 or visit www.seattleopera.org.

MAGGIE LARRICK is former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News. To comment on this review, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.