In an opera such as Verdi’s Nabucco, in which the grandiosity of the story and setting threatens to turn the players on stage into mere mouthpieces for history, good singing and good character-work are essential. It's a good thing that the Lyric Opera put together the best-sounding première of the year so far, in which singers, chorus and the orchestra all began with astonishing confidence and only improved from there.

<i>Nabucco</i> © Cory Weaver
Nabucco
© Cory Weaver

Carlo Rizzi’s large-scale approach to the score was evident throughout in brisk tempi that were elastic but never indulgent, pitched precisely at a point where beauty impresses itself upon the listener and then moves on, as if unaware of the effect it just had. The choral sound could have used more focus and nuance at softer dynamic levels, but in forte ranges it verily blazed the terror of God.

And hardly more could have been asked for in a cast. Dmitry Belosselskiy’s huge voice was shaded by an appealing darkness. Zaccaria, as a character, isn’t gifted with much of a range of action or emotion, but Belosselskiy’s singing was nevertheless always characterful and dramatically interesting.

Dmitry Belosselskiy (Zaccaria) © Cory Weaver
Dmitry Belosselskiy (Zaccaria)
© Cory Weaver

Željko Lučić took a while to warm up as the Babylonian king Nabucco. His entrance, ostensibly one of great pomp and rage, lacked power and presence, sounding as though he were singing through gauze. Only in Part III when the opera shifts, as it were, backstage, and we see the anxious father behind the façade of the ruler, does Lučić’s voice to expand to fill the role. Where the voice lacked resonance before, it now seemed to carry easily and with a natural, unforced power that showed off its warm tone.

The women rounded out an exemplary cast. Elizabeth DeShong, as Fenena, isn’t given a great deal to do until the latter half of the opera, but she manages to convey a convincing toughness in the brief passages where she does appear. She sings with a lot of vibration in the voice, but avoids messiness by constraining it with a great deal of focus in her phrasing.

Tatiana Serjan (Abigaille) © Andrew Cioffi
Tatiana Serjan (Abigaille)
© Andrew Cioffi
Yet blowing everyone out of the water was Tatiana Serjan as Abigaille, who seems to have been the only one to not receive the memo that the singers must be contained by the opera. Her delivery is the one that most went against the score’s grain, emphasizing long, sinewy lines that flooded across the regimented squareness of much of the opera’s orchestral pulse. As a character actress she is beyond compare, delivering instantly the sense of a complete persona as soon as she storms on stage. Her Abigaille is misunderstood, spluttering with feeling, and confused about her own desires even as she is overcome by them. Matching her emotional ferocity is a voice of great flexibility, tremendous resonance and natural ease.

I wish I could say that this Nabucco made as much sense visually as it cohered in sound. Framed by a rather garish set drenched in primary color by Michael Yeargan, this perennial story about religious conflict in the Middle East looks set in a future imagined by science fiction that would now be a few decades out of date. Thus Jane Greenwood, the costume designer, outfits the Babylonians in deep red robes and hats with Tron-like geometric outlining, while Yeargan’s set in the final act looks like a bunch of blue Ikea tables stacked on top of each other. Other visual moments, such as the large shifting blocks during a scene change whose distance from the eye was rendered ambiguous by images projected upon them, or the immense and hazy cloudscape that opens onto the “Va, pensiero” chorus of Part III, were much more subtle and beautiful, although it remains unexplained what this production’s subtly modern visual aesthetic has to do with other aspects of the production. These choices end up feeling somewhat arbitrary; it is a lucky thing that the première’s performance was musically decisive.