On paper, Seattle Opera’s new production of Nabucco sounded enticing. General Director Aidan Lang generated buzz about the “innovative staging concept” we should anticipate for the company's first-ever presentation of Verdi's third opera. Seattle Opera had meanwhile undertaken a rebranding effort that included a design facelift of its website to emphasise large, bold visuals – with billboard-style tags announcing Nabucco: “Betrayed. Twisted. Epic.” The production, which opened on Saturday, launches the first season in which Lang's vision for Seattle Opera is finally expected to begin emerging. (He took over leadership of the company only last year, when Speight Jenkins retired.)

Gordon Hawkins (Nabucco) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Abigaille) © Philip Newton
Gordon Hawkins (Nabucco) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Abigaille)
© Philip Newton

Nabucco, the early breakthrough that made Verdi a sensation when it premiered in 1842, poses some intimidating challenges: chiefly, how to find singers who are even adequate, let alone outstanding, as well as how to make the pseudo-biblical epic a viable theatrical experience for today's audiences. Unfortunately, weak staging and uneven casting together undermine Seattle Opera's production, leaving the overall impression of a failed experiment. This review is of the opening night cast and therefore does not take into account the 'alternate' cast of three principals who will appear later in the run in three performances.

The “innovative staging concept” was to eliminate the proscenium barrier by covering the pit and to place the orchestra in the middle of the stage, behind the singers, who were positioned up close to the front of this extended stage area. Additionally, a large screen far upstage projected images in lieu of scenery. At best, the effect was underwhelming; at worst, it tacked on a new set of acoustical problems to the challenges of realising Verdi's score.

It seems almost unfair under these circumstances to complain about the stretches of routine time-beating from conductor Carlo Montanaro (who led a far livelier performance of the much-rarer Attila at Seattle Opera three seasons ago). He had enough to worry about trying to keep things in sync while sandwiched between the principals and the chorus (the latter frequently singing behind the orchestra). Textures wavered in and out of audibililty, with an especially surreal effect from the murky offstage banda – as if a long-lost score by John Cage were finally receiving its première.

Little was convincing (discounting intentional parody) in director François Racine's staging: a confusing mishmash of ridiculously cliched, grandiose gestures (above all from the high priest Zaccaria) and “psychological realism” when the principals were caught up in moments of extreme choice.

Seattle Opera Chorus © Philip Newton
Seattle Opera Chorus
© Philip Newton

Ironically, positioning the chorus far upstage, behind the orchestra, only exacerbated the sense of dramaturgical artificiality, recalling an oratorio performance or a rather stodgy attempt at concert opera. More's the pity, since the chorus is, of course, one of Nabucco's central characters. They sang fervently enough (prepared by Chorusmaster John Keene), though “Va pensiero” – with the blocking at last moved downstage – lacked the extreme dynamic contrasts needed for its full impact.

For the stage decor, video designer Robert Bonniol teamed with set designer Robert Schaub (working in collaboration with Seattle Opera's Technical Department, according to the credits). Aside from a notably unimposing physical throne onstage, appearing like an afterthought for the pivotal scene of Nabucco's confrontation with the usurping Abigaille, the set essentially consisted of some mostly abstract, occasionally symbolic, images projected onto the large upstage screen. These were meant to evoke the aura of the Temple in Jerusalem and King Nebuchadnezzar's court and hanging gardens in Babylon.

Hinting at times at a B movie sci-fi epic, the visual component failed spectacularly at eliciting any sense of mystery or grandeur, let alone at distinguishing between the worlds of the ancient Hebrews and and their Babylonian captors. Ginette Grenier's contrasting sets of brown/red and silver/blue costumes presumably intended to compensate but merely presented a variant on Cecil B. DeMille-style kitsch. 

Nabucco fared better with the casting. Mary Elizabeth Williams emerged as the star of the evening, delivering a theatrically vivid and thrillingly sung performance of the power-hungry, jilted Abigaille. With her untiring and excitingly huge voice, Williams showed remarkably even strength in the registral extremes on which the part notoriously relies. Her dynamic control was similarly admirable. Phrasing with imagination throughout, in her solo in Part Two she hinted at a dimension of inner turmoil, mitigating Abigaille's imperious demeanour with moments that suggested self-doubt.

Jamie Barton (Fenena) and Christian Van Horn (Zaccaria) © Philip Newton
Jamie Barton (Fenena) and Christian Van Horn (Zaccaria)
© Philip Newton

Likewise impressive was Jamie Barton's passionate portrayal of Fenena, the half-sister of Abigaille who wins the man loved by both, the Israelite Ismaele. Her prayer in Part Four, just before the freshly converted Nabucco arrives to stay her execution, was a highlight amid the mostly uninspired staging. So was the trio between her, Abigaille, and Ismaele in Part One. Despite his nondescript acting, Russell Thomas used his robust tenor to shape Verdi's rich melodic lines with heartfelt expression.

In what appeared to be an off night for an otherwise fine singer, Gordon Hawkins struggled with intonation and consistency of phrasing as the title tyrant-turned-liberator, the distress becoming acutely apparent in the final part of the opera. When Racine pointed up the parallel between Nabucco's situation in his state of madness and King Lear (the elusive Shakespeare opera Verdi longed to write for years), it felt disconnected from the hubristic Babylonian's portrayal in the rest of the opera. Christian Van Horn was an imposing Zaccaria but lost strength at the bottom of his range, an essential part of the high priest's vocal characterisation.