When I saw a three-tiered theater set-up on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, consisting of boxes decorated with blue velvet, gold and exquisite paintings, I have to admit that even having seen various different stagings of Verdi’s Nabucco before, I was intrigued. Served by the internationally acclaimed stage director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger, famous for his dynamic concepts and diverse staging style, this Washington National Opera production obviously promised surprises that I had not been prepared for.

As soon as every box onstage was filled with elegantly attired audience members in Viennese ball-gowns and tuxedos, it became clear that using the “play-within-a-play” staging device, Strassberger had set his production in La Scala of Verdi’s days, presumably on the night of March 9th 1842, when Verdi, young and still unknown in Milan, sat in the orchestra pit waiting for the most demanding of audiences to determine the future of his third opera – and his own future as a composer.

The Biblical story of the conquered and exiled ancient Hebrews was not his own idea. Still numb from the pain of losing both his children and his beloved wife, Verdi felt empty and unable to compose. Had it not been for one line in Solera’s libretto that unexpectedly caught his eye, the world would have probably never heard Nabucco. But that line, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on wings of gold”), inspiring people to fight against their conquerors and win their motherland back, instantly captured the composer’s imagination. Yes, he would take up that commission. He would write new music for the sake of those whose love of their country was as strong as his. He would dedicate his opera to his beloved Italy!

The La Scala setup that Strassberger chose for his Nabucco production served as a visual prelude to this show of utmost theatrical grandeur, the director’s personal tribute to the uncompromisingly high staging standards of this grand opera house. From the golden gates of the Temple of Solomon to the endless galleries of Nabucco’s palace, from the subtle blue mosaics in the hanging gardens of Babylon to the dark cell of Nabucco’s prison, the breathtaking sets were hand-painted with a masterful, classical sense of aerial perspective and optical illusion. Using burgundy silk and ochre organza, with occasional splashes of turquoise and purple in the dresses of Assyrian women to the simple white cotton and beige linen in the garments of Hebrew slaves, the majestic period costumes added to the intensity of each character and emphasized the dramatic contrast between the slaves and their conquerors.

The two most impressive voices of the evening belonged to baritone Franco Vassallo, who portrayed Nabucco with the emotional depth and tonal variety of a Verdi expert, and soprano Csilla Boross, whose convincing treatment of Nabucco’s venomous pseudo-daughter Abigaille was marked with the artist’s arresting stage presence, enormous range and vocal security. The two artists joined their forces in a true vocal battle of their Act 3 duet “Oh di qual aggravasi questo mio crin canuto”, in which their characters’ greed for power made them terrifyingly similar.

However, it was not until the pinnacle scene of the opera, the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, that Strassberger’s concept behind the use of the “play-within-a-play” device came through with more vividness. Having set it backstage at La Scala, ripped of every theatrical splendor, Strassberger centered this scene around the opera’s main character: its people. Intentionally merging the most incompatible things – different epochs, different countries and different social classes – he showed us that different as we may all look on the outside, on the inside we are all quite similar – especially when it comes to our values, ambitions and goals. The voices of Assyrian conquerors and Hebrew slaves, ballerinas in white tutus and gentlemen in tuxedos, seamstresses sewing costumes and carpenters fixing the sets, all blended together in a breathtaking choral unison as they performed Verdi’s golden-winged hymn “Va pensiero sull’ali dorate”.

Instead of ending the night with traditional bows, much to the delight of the excited audience, the artists came together again to join their voices in a heartfelt a cappella encore of the piece, encouraging all to follow the lyrics projected above the stage and sing together with them. As the voices from the audience picked up power and volume, the piece gained a new, universal significance. It was no longer the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves. Just like on the day of Verdi’s funeral, 60 years after the premiere of his Nabucco, when it was spontaneously sung by the 300 thousand voices of those who followed the funeral cortège along the streets of Milan, the glorious chorus turned into a hymn to Verdi, one of the greatest sons of Italy.