For the opening production in its 35th anniversary season, Opéra de Montréal pulled out all the stops in Verdi’s Nabucco, presented as a re-enactment of its première in 1842. As the lengthy overture drew to a close, couples resembling mid-19th-century European nobility in ballroom attire walked across the stage with a convoy of soldiers and seated themselves in theatre boxes in the wings. This was to be a play within a play.

Although Nabucco may not be among Verdi’s best output, as the work that re-launched his career after the flash-in-the-pan success of Oberto and utter failure of Un giorno di regno, it contains enough gems to make for an entertaining evening. For the gold standard in staging, we need look no further than Thaddeus Strassberger.  In the last couple of years, Minnesota Opera, Philadelphia Opera and Washington National Opera have put on his production to critical acclaim. In the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montréal on Thursday, I understood why.

It’s not that Strassberger’s production necessarily requires a huge budget – it doesn’t have triple-decker mobile platforms on rollers or staircases that reach far into the fly tower – but it shows an uncanny mastery of dramatic elements.  Its attention to detail in the period costumes, innovative use of spatial illusion, and well-conceived furniture and props create a totality that is at once ornate and striking.  Colourful backdrops painted with a superb sense of perspective create depth in the scenery; the destruction of the Baal icon is marked by a mild explosion that jolts the audience.  Deployment of colour separates the oppressor from the oppressed, and lighting changes effectively accentuate changes in mood.

Although the opera is named after the King of Babylon, his illegitimate daughter by a slave, Abigaille, has such a technically challenging and oversize role that she can make or break a performance.  I, for one, never tire of listening to “Salgo già del trono aurato” (I now ascend the bloodstained seat) in Part 2.  Its undulating melodic line, double-octave dives and wide tessitura have tripped up many an accomplished singer. Russian soprano Tatiana Melnychenko acquitted herself superbly, both as a multidimensional character actress and as a singer. She hit the top notes with ease, deftly navigated the sharp turns and landed softly on the low notes.  Her vulnerability in “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” (I too once opened my heart) elicited plenty of sympathy.

Who really carried the day, almost by stealth, though, was Paolo Gavanelli as Nabucco.  Sincere and authoritative, his rich and booming tone and sheer lyrical prowess impressed me more than any other member of the cast. His “Dio di Giuda” (Judah’s God) overflowed with such genuine humility that Zaccaria’s crowning of him as “king of kings” at the end sounded inevitable.

Ievgen Orlov as the Jewish high priest Zaccaria paled somewhat in the company of Abigaille and Nabucco.  His exhortation of the Jews to have faith in God in “D’Egitto là su i lidi” (There upon the shores of Egypt) was unconvincing.  On occasions, he was mildly out of step with the orchestra. Both Margaret Mezzacappa (Fenena) and Antoine Bélanger (Ismaele) are talented singers with sweet voices and endearing tones, but their respective roles provided little scope for them to showcase their skills.

The Choir of the Opéra de Montreal deserves a special mention, not only because they are responsible for the best known tune from the opera, “Va pensiero, sull’ale dorate” (Fly, thought, on wings of gold), but because they provided emphasis and impetus to action in the opera. Their soft and controlled delivery of “Va pensiero” fully reflected a combination of sadness and hope.

The musical accompaniment of Orchestre Métropolitain, under Francesco Maria Colombo, was truly evocative. The richness and depth of tone were delightful, and his grasp of the symbolic elements in Verdi’s orchestration was impeccable.  As Verdi must have intended, the flute and cello passages stood out. It is seldom that I walk out of an opera feeling so buoyant about the orchestra.

The real surprise, however, was how it all ended.  Soon after the curtain came down after Nabucco knelt in front of Zaccaria in deference to his newly acquired religion, he immediately returned to the stage, which I mistook to be a rather rushed curtain call.  As the curtain rose to reveal the Jews, Nabucco led them in an encore of “Va Pensiero”.  Some soldiers from the convoy at the start of the opera pointed their rifles at the Jews, and it dawned on me that the opera’s première in 1842 could have ended this way had the Austrians been more sensitive to the nationalistic undertone. The standing ovation was well deserved.