Taconic Opera's Nabucco, performed in Yorktown Heights, New York, proved an unexpected treat. On the strength of this performance, there was no question that I would schlep to the next, at SUNY Purchase's Pepsico Theater, scheduled for October 29 (however, a freak snowstorm forced the postponement of that performance until December 3). The overall quality of Taconic's Nabucco, mounted on a small budget, puts to shame more grandiose and costly productions I have seen. Taconic Opera has for fourteen years been quietly serving as Westchester County's regional company, and in addition to staged performances, does much to promote opera in the surrounding area. The company invites public school students to attend special preview performances free of charge, and also takes concerts to local schools.
Nabucco is an ambitious undertaking for any company, grandiose in its scale and daunting in the demands it makes on its vocalists. For Taconic Opera to have put together even one cast capable of surmounting its difficulties says a lot for the organization. That they assembled two is nothing short of miraculous. I did not, regrettably, see the alternate cast but was assured by another attendee during intermission that it was also very fine. This was a very traditional production with modest but effective sets and costumes. It was a breath of fresh air; for once, the audience could enjoy the music free of the kinds of pointless distractions that have become de rigeur in opera directing. The two things truly at the heart of opera – the music and the singing – were given due respect in this Nabucco. One could easily see why the opera took Milan, and then all of Italy by storm, making Verdi's a household name.
After a brisk and exciting reading of the overture and a wonderfully sung opening chorus, the next indication that this performance would be really extraordinary came with the entrance of the fearsome Zaccaria of Stephen Fredericks. Secure and solid in his singing, Fredericks possesses a powerful, rich bass, resonant from the uppermost notes to the basement. Together with his commanding stage presence, this made for a thrilling reading of the role. His opening prayer and the big double aria following "Va Pensiero” garnered well-merited and enthusiastic applause.
As Ismaele, tenor John Roger took some time to find his footing, initially sounding a little uncertain in intonation. By the second act, he had hit his stride and delivered some wonderful high notes, his voice displaying a beautiful and distinctive Italianate ping in his solo with chorus. His acting, particularly when paired with Lindy Wilkinson's Fenena, was ardent and convincing.
In the title role, Dan Klein was initially tentative, but his attractive baritone quickly warmed up and he was soon comfortably inhabiting the role of the megalomaniacal king. I was especially taken by his portrayal of Nabucco's episodes of madness; his instantaneous descent from power-hungry tyrant into defeated old man was a real theatrical triumph. In his duet with Abigaille, he pulled out all the stops, finishing the final measure with a thrilling, sustained high A-flat. And in the prison scene, the whole audience was in the palm of his hand.
As for Francesca Mondanaro's Abigaille, where to begin? Everyone was completely dazzled by her vocal and dramatic abilities. Larger companies should rush to hire this phenomenal dramatic coloratura soprano, who richly deserves to be featured on the worlds' greatest operatic stages. This could well be - and I do not say this lightly - the best interpretation of Abigaille I have ever heard live or on record, one that compares favorably with Maria Callas's and Marisa Galvany's, to name two. I rarely hear such solid vocal technique put to such exciting use. Mondanaro's voice conjures up shades of a kind of Verdi soprano that has seemingly all but vanished: think Cerquetti, Callas, Milanov, or perhaps more aptly the Giuseppina Strepponi for whom Verdi only wished he had been writing the role! Many Abigailles fudge the coloratura, relying instead on screaming and growling to compensate for their inability to really sing the role. With Mondanaro, nothing was sacrificed: runs, trills, and ornaments of all manner - were neatly articulated and put to great dramatic use. There was no tentativeness, no uncertainty, no indication that any of these acrobatics were a strain. The voice itself is unforgettable - voluminous, lush, and beautiful, with a contralto-like darkness and an attractive vibrato. Chest notes were powerful and incisive, and the role's perilous leaps were nailed without the smallest hesitancy or misstep in intonation. The voice sliced cleanly through the most voluminous ensembles like a hot knife through butter. Text was thoroughly and convincingly understood and utilized (there were even a few well-placed, decadently savored rolled "r's" and angrily spat-out explosive consonants).
There were so many highlights to her vocal performance that it is difficult to know which to single out for mention. In the cadenza concluding the aria "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno” a rapturously beautiful high C formed in mid-air and enveloped the auditorium in its soft, feathery folds; it seemed to come from every direction at once. Her delivery of the ensuing cabaletta, "Salgo già del trono aurato” was as savage as the aria before was heartbreaking. The end of the Act II duet with Klein was capped with a gorgeous, spine-tingling E-flat in alt, and the death scene was ravishingly sung and very movingly acted. Abigaille is frequently played as a Disney villainess, her cruelty and selfishness unmitigated. Mondanaro made her a three-dimensional character, one with whom we could empathize even as her actions horrified us. This was truly an exceptional performance that will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to experience it.
The remaining cast gave solid support to the principals. As Anna, Tina McVey-Cody's clear and attractive voice stood out, lending additional beauty and richness to the ensembles. The chorus was very well-rehearsed, dramatically involved. As a delightful surprise, their touching, highly lyrical rendition of "Va pensiero,” was repeated with the Italian words projected above the stage so that the audience could sing along the second time round: a rather daring departure from the expected, but a well-calculated one. The audience could not help but feel like friends welcomed into the artists' world. The orchestra under Jun Nakabayashi's direction played with great verve and enthusiasm, even if sometimes the tempi were a bit rushed.
Sets and costumes were simple and without frills, but quite evocative of the time period. Budgetary concerns must have led to the decision not to have Babylonians among the chorus and supernumeraries, but this led to some major dramatic and musical lacunae: in the combat scenes and before Fenena's near-execution, it was unclear why the Jews didn't simply overwhelm their opposition, which consisted only of Abdallo and the High Priest of Baal. Cabalettas were mostly pruned to a single verse, a minor complaint; but the entire cabaletta of Nabucco's prison aria was cut (presumably for lack of choral back-up; Klein was certainly more than capable of singing the whole thing). This not only deprived us of one of the best pieces in the opera, but was also an obvious and cosmetically unsatisfying amputation. With no closing cadence in the orchestra, the leap to the following scene was very jarring.
Yet overall, this Nabucco left me vibrating with the kind of excitement that has grown all too infrequent at the opera. I would encourage anyone to attend the follow-up performance on December 3 at SUNY Purchase; tickets, if not already gone, are likely to be scarce. Taconic's upcoming offerings will consist of Don Pasquale (March 23-25, 2012) and Rossini's Petit Messe Solenelle (June 2-3, 2012).
By Daniel Foley
Photo Credit: Deborah Grosmark