Opera

An Opera of Biblical Proportions

By Christopher Cappiello

November 07, 2017

In the month of November LA Opera takes audiences on an action-packed journey with Thaddeus Strassberger’s inventive staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s biblical drama Nabucco, starring opera legend and LA Opera’s general director Plácido Domingo.

Verdi was 28 years old when his third opera debuted at Milan’s La Scala in 1842, and the piece catapulted him to stardom. Set in ancient times during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews, the opera is based on events described in the Book of Jeremiah. Because it is an Italian opera, however, Verdi also added an invented love triangle to spice up the proceedings.

The title is an Italian shortening of the name of the ancient king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who has conquered and exiled the Hebrews from their homeland at the top of the show. Nabucco has two daughters, the older, fiery Abigaille, and the younger, sweeter Fenena, both of whom love the handsome young Hebrew Ismaele.

Nabucco is one of Verdi’s great baritone roles, and since Maestro Domingo decided several years ago that, rather than retire as one of the world’s greatest tenors, he would continue to sing by exploring baritone parts, he has sung the role in some of the world’s greatest opera houses. “I first sang the title role of this exciting work in 2013,” he says, “and have relished the opportunity to revisit this Biblical king several times since then.” As a younger man he sang the tenor role of Ismaele to acclaim, but now relishes the chance to take on the complicated and psychologically challenging title role, which includes a mad scene that takes place after Nabucco has declared himself god of the Hebrews and gets struck by lightning. “Mad scenes in operas are usually sung by sopranos,” the playful legend says, “but this role finally gives me the chance to have my own mad scene, something I never expected!”

At 76, Domingo is once again taking on Nabucco with Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska singing the powerhouse part of Abigaille opposite him. One of the reasons Verdi’s early piece is infrequently staged is because the role of Abigaille is so difficult, requiring such wildly varied styles and skills from a singer. Monastyrska has made the challenging part her own, and has performed the piece with Domingo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and at the Met Opera last year in an acclaimed staging that had critics raving about the pair. “I am delighted to introduce Liudmyla Monastyrska to Los Angeles in her signature role,” he says.

Another hallmark of Nabucco is Verdi’s exceptional use of the chorus. While there are gorgeous chorus selections throughout, the piece includes one of opera’s most famous choruses, “Va, pensiero,” in which the exiled Hebrews long for their homeland. When Verdi wrote the opera in 1842 Italy was in the beginning of the risorgimento, the “resurgence” of interest in Italian unification. Northern Italy, where the opera premiered, was under Austrian rule, and “Va, pensiero” became a beloved anthem of patriotic pride for Italians in the mid-19th century and beyond.

Director Strassberger’s production attempts to capture the feeling of the 1842 premiere by placing opera boxes on the sides of the stage with 19th-century characters watching the opera while Austrian soldiers stand guard. While we many never know exactly what it felt like to experience that national pride while under foreign domination, we can take great pride in the world-renowned Plácido Domingo continuing to expand his repertoire and challenge himself at his cultural home of LA Opera.