“Nabucco” Review – West Bay Opera Impeccably Sings Verdi

L to R, foreground: Zaccaria (Ben Brady), Ismaele (John Kun Park), Fenena (Claudia Chapa), and the WBO chorus - Opening scene in the temple of Solomon

Henry Etzkowitz and Chunyan Zhou

Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto’s Community performance venue hosted a world class offering of Giuseppe Verdi’s interpretation of the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, the agonistic struggle between Israelites and Assyrians, the sacking of the Temple of Solomon, the Jews exile and eventual return to Jerusalem. Jose Luis Moscovich, conductor and general director of West Bay Opera introduced the West Bays first performance of Nabucco, originally presented by Milan’s La Scala in 1842,  this past Friday with a telling reference to contemporary Middle East struggles. Certainly, the Kurd/Turkish conflict has tragic operative potential but it is certainly not yet clear what will be the resolution, political or dramatic. 

 L-R top: Zaccaria (Ben Brady), Anna (Sarah Benzinger) and Ismael (John Kun Park). Bottom: Fenena (Claudia Chapa) and Abdallo, Nabucco’s aide-de-camps (Carmello Tringali) realizing that Abigaille and the priests have staged a coup

Nabucco, opens with a powerful overture portending great events. West Bay’s Orchestral power is enhanced by tiers of brass located on the side of the stage, facing the audience, supplementing the diminutive Palo Alto pit. The Jewish protagonists appear on stage wringing their hands in despair calling upon their G-D for an improbable rescue from Assyrian legions bent on their capture and the Temple’s destruction.  The Jews are in their usual bind waiting for a higher authority to save them from being caught in the claws of a greater power. But this is opera, where a personal element, the love of an Assyrian princess for an imprisoned Judean Ambassador, is inserted to set in motion a plot, with two women competing for the affections of the Hebrew, a mad Lear-like ruler struggling to regain his authority. Thus, does the political become personal in Verdi’s interpretation of Assyrian-Jewish relations, overlaid by internal complications within each community.

 Nabucco (Jason Duika) in his mad scene

Nabucco tells the story of the ancient king of Babylon who slandered the G-d of Israel but he finally repented. The religious taste of the story is strong, and similar stories have been told countless times, including the story of King David in the Bible. The stage design of this opera uses modern techniques: combining the large screen behind it with the props in front of the stage to add dynamic and realism. 

L to R: Abigaille (Christina Major) and Nabucco (Jason Duika) after torching Solomon’s Temple

Roy Steven’s baritone is a good example of a king’s superiority and pride, as well as pampered living, including the dramatic Baryton-noble baritone. Christina Major with her beautiful soprano has a very strong and majestic voice. Her voice has a far reach, just right for an ambitious lady in the Palace. She could play a villainess, or a motherly character. However, in this performance Fenena’ mezzo-soprano (by Claudia Chapa) is just right for an unfortunate daughter. Ben Brady as Zaccaria is a performance worthy of praise as a religiously rich work. His male voice is bright and honest, and he brings a lot of solemnity and admiration to G-d in this performance, such that one feels the power of faith.

Maestro Moscovich during the final dress rehearsal of Nabucco

Community Opera is alive and well in Silicon Valley, a venue with a vibrant if under-acknowledged performance scene. The depth of the local talent was great enough to supply a stellar last-minute replacement for Nabucco. Ray Stevens, an internationally experienced San Jose State trained baritone, stepped in with only a day’s notice to carry off the role as if he had been designated from the outset.  Kudos to Stevens and West Bay for achieving a seamless transition. The replacement was no doubt assisted by the relatively static nature of Nabucco’s staging, mostly delivered by protagonists and ensemble directly facing the audience and singing their all. On the other hand, a looser staging might not have so effectively captured the inescapable binds of conflict. The four walls of the proscenium, three visible and one invisible, heightened the emotional effect of a powerful performance that threatened but did not break theatrical convention. West Bay Opera’s Nabucco is grand opera apotheosis put over by a relatively small troupe, exemplifying how less can be more in the collective imagination of  stagers and audience, if and when they so will it. No-one in the mid-Peninsula is entitled to complain that they have to endure traffic to San Francisco or San Jose to see a “decent” opera when the West Bay Opera is celebrating its sixty-fourth season in the neighborhood around us!

L to R: Abigaille (Christina Major, with sword), Nabucco (Jason Duika, center top), Zaccaria (Ben Brady, with arms outstretched), Fenena (Claudia Chapa, kneeling in front), and Ismaele (John Kun Park, next to Fenena
Abigaile (Christina Major) tells Nabucco he is her prisoner. Maestro Moscovich conducts the WBO Orchestra

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