During Verdi’s bicentenary month and year, it’s fitting that Opera Philadelphia kicked off its 2013/14 season with the work that Verdi himself considers as having launched his own career – Nabucco. Written at a time when Italy longed to be free of foreign rule, Verdi’s name and the expression “Viva Verdi” became synonymous with Italian nationalism and unification.

The director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger of the Philly production tapped into the nationalistic energy swirling around Nabucco at the time of its debut in 1842 by staging it as a play within a play being watched by a cadre of 19th-cenury Austrian nobility. Without such a contrivance, Nabucco would have fallen flatter than a fettucini noodle. It is a very long, often static, four-act opera that might have been dull as dishwater had not the layered-in drama, strong performances, gorgeous costumes, and solid production values retrieved it from stagnation.

In this production, the plight of the Jews as they are attacked, conquered, and exiled to Babylonia by King Nabucco (or, as he is also known, Nebuchadnezzar) not only echoes the treatment of the Italian people under Austrian oppression but also becomes almost insignificant to it. The audience no longer cares much about ancient captive Jews nearly as much as they are moved by the trials of 19th-century Italians.

In its defense, Opera Phila’s Nabucco did lend itself to tableaux and robust choral numbers, both beautifully showcased by virtue of a stunning set and the 72-member Opera Philadelphia chorus.

Enough can’t be said for either in this show. Director Strassberger learned the craft of set painting à la La Scala earlier in his career. One simply gawked at its beauty and intricacy all afternoon. Not flashy or high tech – just rich and ornate. I’ve never been more impressed by a set at Opera Philadelphia. Choirmaster Elizabeth Braden joined the company bows for this show and deservedly so. Every choral number triumphed, especially the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, Va, pensiero. The manner in which it was rolled out as the show’s encore was original and moving.

As with many Verdi operas, singing a lead in this show could be akin to being tossed into a fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Also like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, all the male principals emerged alive at the end. That included baritone Sebastian Catana, despite being struck by some fierce Old Testament wrath-of-God lightning and left for dead. Catana evidenced both beauty and power, aria after aria after aria, and was warmly rewarded for his vocal fortitude at curtain call with a standing ovation. As the leader of the Jews Zaccaria, bass Morris Robinson delivered an impassioned and also one of the most nuanced performances I have ever seen from a bass, full of range and depth. However, the male voice that most intrigued me belonged to tenor Adam Diegel who sang the role of Ismaele, the secret love of an Assyrian princess. He had power, he had ping, and I would surely love to see him in a bigger role like Cavaradossi or Don José very, very soon.

As for the women, Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross sang the role of Abigaille, which has gotten the better of many accomplished sopranos because of its high tessitura. She had dramatic intensity and notes that hit the rafters but sounded strained on her top notes, as though she been pushing her voice to heights it was too tired to scale.
While I enjoyed seeing Margaret Mezzacappa performing outside of the Academy of Vocal Arts, this role wasn’t quite the showcase for her talent and technique I was hoping for.

Every time I see Opera Philadelphia perform under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, the orchestra performs brilliantly but consistently too loudly. Thank heaven for the occasional oom-pah-pah style of orchestration under Verdi arias or we might never hear the singers in Rovaris’ house.

As a work in the repertoire, Nabucco is problematic in that it sort of belongs to everyone and no-one. Leads emerged and then faded as another character stepped into the limelight, the ultimate effect being that it was difficult to identify and have a transformative journey with one central character. Not to mention that all the bad guys had a reckoning. I think Aida went on to greater heights because some characters can’t and won’t be redeemed. These flaws are hardly Opera Philadelphia’s fault, other than choosing this particular work as opposed to the many other Verdi operas that audiences still pay to see.

Nabucco was hardly this critic’s favorite. Besides being long and deadly dull, there was too much gratuitous flailing and bowing that distracted the audience from where they should have been focused. To my utter surprise, the audience was on its feet as the curtain fell, as if to say, “Dash the critics. Viva Verdi! Viva Opera Philadelphia!”