An electrifying Serjan ignites Lyric Opera’s “Nabucco”

January 25, 2016
Tatiana Serjan is Abigaille in the Lyric Opera production of Verdi's "Nabucco." Photo: Cory Weaver

Tatiana Serjan is Abigaille in the Lyric Opera production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Photo: Cory Weaver

One could hardly conceive a better way to heat up the bleak Chicago midwinter than with some blood-and-thunder Verdi.

And with an inspired cast led by Tatiana Serjan, who delivered some of the most thrilling singing heard in Chicago in years Saturday night, Lyric Opera’s Nabucco delivers the Verdian goods.

It was Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi’s third attempt at an opera, that put the 29-year-old composer on the map. The Biblical tale of ancient religious hatreds in the Middle East may be eternally relevant yet this early work charting a love triangle and family loyalties set against conflict between the Babylonians and Israelites has more than a few creaky moments.

The famous chorus of Hebrew captives may be the opera’s only celebrated set piece, yet Verdi’s score has ample richness and variety, offering a myriad of vocal opportunities for a talented cast. And, despite the sometimes stiff dramaturgy, Nabucco shows the burgeoning psychological complexity that Verdi would bring to the masterworks to come in his layered treatment of the title king of Babylon and his power-hungry daughter, Abigaille (the first of Verdi’s many conflicted father-daughter relationships).

Željko Lučić returned to Lyric in the title role of the Assyrian king of Babylon who is smote by God for his blasphemy in declaring his own divinity—and then unsmote after a prayer of penitence, regaining his sanity and power and becoming a more forgiving and magnanimous leader.

The Serbian singer, who made his company debut three seasons ago as Rigoletto, was less than commanding in his entrance opening night. His middle-weight baritone sounded underpowered and lacked dramatic cut and intensity in his exhortations to destroy the Jewish temple.

Perhaps he was etching a more stoic portrayal of Nabucco than usual, for after intermission Lučić’s portrayal of the king went from strength to strength. He brought touching expression to Nabucco’s despair at his downfall and Abigaille’s usurpation, as well as determination and renewed fervor to the prayer that restores his sanity (“Dio do Giuda”).

But the night really belonged to Tatiana Serjan as Abigaille, Nabucco’s daughter, who is in reality a slave plotting his overthrow and destruction.

Even more than in her previous acclaimed Chicago appearances (Lady Macbeth with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Tosca in her Lyric debut last season), the Russian soprano was simply electrifying vocally and dramatically. For those of us who never heard Maria Callas in the flesh, Serjan’s riveting performance made one think this is something what that experience must have been like.

With her flame-red tresses, long black coat and sword, and striking presence, Serjan made a villainess as sexy as she was dangerous. She dominated the stage in every scene and brought an unhinged intensity to Abigaille that felt like it could explode at any minute. This woman means business.

The role is one of the most infamous voice-shredders in the canon, and Serjan tackled all the landmines–huge vocal leaps and drops, extended phrases and sudden bursts of coloratura–with rich, gleaming tone, finely nuanced coloring and staggering flexibility.

Yet the soprano also brought a compensating sensitivity to the treacherous character. In her Act II cavatina, “Anch’io dischisuo un giorno,” she sang with inward tenderness and tonal delicacy of her ill-fated love for Ismaele, whose preference for Fenena fuels her hatred. Serjan is such a compelling actress, she not only managed to sell the improbable final scene where the dying, remorseful Abigaille asks Fenena and God for forgiveness, but made it genuine and heart-breaking.

Two other singers completed this cast’s Russian triumvirate, both making impressive house debuts. As the prophet Zaccaria, Dmitry Belosselskiy brought dignified bearing and a smooth, sonorous Slavic bass to the Moses-like leader of the Israelites. The role of Ismaele is a bit of a cipher but Sergei Skorokhodov made an imposing debut showing a big, febrile tenor in the Act 1 trio and ensembles.

Likewise, the role of Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, is rather thankless, requiring a lot of standing around looking pained. But mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong made the most of her belated moment in the sun with a radiant rendering of her Act IV prayer.

The small roles of Anna, Abdallo and the High Priest of Baal–a job that always looks good on a resume–were handled with aplomb by Laura Wilde, Jesse Donner and Stefan Szkafarowsky, respectively.

The chorus is nearly a principal character in Nabucco, carrying much of the ensemble weight and having to portray soldiers, captives and priests. Under the direction of chorus master Michael Black, the expanded Lyric Opera Chorus of 82 singers delivered. On opening night “Va, pensiero” was beautifully sung yet sounded expressively cool and didn’t quite touch the heart as it should. For the most part the choral singing was full-blooded and magnificent throughout, adding crackling theatrical frisson to the big ensembles.

For these performances, the company has dusted off the Michael Yeargan production from Lyric’s last Nabucco in 1997. Yeargan’s abstract towering sets offer arresting scenic visuals, and the company deftly ushered the staging into the 21st century with evocative new lighting by Duane Schuler and projections by Chris Maravich.

The stage direction by Matthew Ozawa in his Lyric debut was worthy with a few missteps and corny moments. The action scenes showed a lack of seasoning, with the entrance of the Babylonian soldiers into the temple awkward and visually confusing.

Some of the opera’s stiffness was exacerbated by static blocking, although there was a certain retro charm in Ozawa’s old-fashioned approach. One also appreciated his refraining from the trend of adding dubious on-stage pantomime during the overture and, instead just letting the audience enjoy the music.

Jane Greenwood’s costumes for the principals and Israelites were stylish and effective. Not so much the chintzy, wrinkled getups for the Babylonian soldiers whose bright-red trousers looked like someone got a bulk discount from a Santa Claus supply warehouse.

After a two-decade absence from Lyric’s roster, the return of conductor Carlo Rizzi was nearly as triumphant as that of Nabucco in the final scene. From the fiery, tautly dramatic account of the overture–one of Verdi’s best–the Italian conductor displayed complete sympathy with the score, accompanying the singers alertly, drawing out the arias sensitively, and putting across the dramatic climaxes with fizzing energy and theatrical impact.

Nabucco runs through February 12.; 312-827-5600.

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