The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves Never Sounded So Good

The wonderful music in the Israeli Opera's presentation of Verdi's 'Nabucco' more than makes up for all the theatrical nonsense.

Michael Handelzalts
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A scene from 'Nabucco.' Despite the ludicrous spectacle, the personal story comes through.
A scene from 'Nabucco.' Despite the ludicrous spectacle, the personal story comes through.Credit: Yossi Zwecker
Michael Handelzalts

First, there was the music: Under the baton of Daniel Oren (whose conducting gestures were definitely part of the draw for the audience at the Opera House), all the textures and tempi, all the crescendos and diminuendos, and the soaring violins by the rivers of Babylon, were just what the ear longed to hear. The voices of the singers – from the magnificent Polish baritone Rafal Siwek as Zaccaria (who set the bar very high) to every last member of the chorus – were just as good. The prayer of the Hebrew slaves was heard twice, of course, and the second time the words were projected in Italian, because Oren is even capable of turning an opera into a public sing-along (alas) and getting away with it. In a sense, Oren is an opera (“work of art” in Italian) himself.

But an opera isn’t just music, and this production, in collaboration with the Royal Opera of Wallonia from Liege, and directed by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, was one of the most theatrically ridiculous I’ve ever seen. Not only was it extremely static (the actors stand and sing), but it also showed that you can lead Nabucco’s horse (made of wood, on wheels, and painted in psychedelic colors) to water (real water, for we are by the rivers of Babylon, remember) and even mount Abigaile on it dressed in a ball gown with a train, but you can’t keep a good number of spectators (I conducted a quick survey during the intermission) from wondering if it exited the stage in reverse. It didn’t, but was still just as ridiculous. By the way, the First Temple in the opera fell after four Babylonians beat their long sticks on a wall that looked like it was constructed of Stars of David made of matchsticks.

It’s customary these days to search for some political interpretation in this opera about the conquest of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile and its end. Following the recent election, it was hard not to look for echoes of the struggle of church versus state. And when at the end of the opera, Nabucco converts (having previously gone mad and then sobered up) and the liberated Jews light seven-branched menorahs in honor of the God of Israel, I thought for a moment that after leaving the performance, the audience would go straight out to build the Third Temple.

Still, even amid this ludicrous spectacle, the personal story of Nabucco the man (Ionut Pascu), the rebellious king who temporarily loses his mind, does come through. And Fenena (Roxana Constantinescu), primarily but not only in the lower register, and Abigaile (Anna Pirozzi, especially in the splendid piano sections) both had some touching personal moments, despite the ludicrous plot, one of the most preposterous in all of opera.

Fortunately, as noted, the wonderful music more than makes up for all the theatrical nonsense.

The Israeli Opera presents “Nabucco” by Giuseppe Verdi, a joint production with the Royal Opera of Wallonia, Liege. Director: Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera. Daniel Oren conducts the Rishon Letzion Orchestra.   April 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 at the Opera House, 19 Sderot Sha’ul HaMelech St., Tel Aviv