LA Opera’s Nabucco pays moving tribute to politics, art

An aging king’s descent into madness. A bloodthirsty princess’ ascension. An unrequited and forbidden love. These are the hallmarks of Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th-century operatic masterpiece, Nabucco. Currently on view at the Los Angeles Opera and imbued with star-studded artists, Nabucco is a masterful rendition of a deeply personal and political tale that has repeatedly withstood the test of time.

First performed in Milan in 1842, at the height of Italy’s suffering under Austrian rule, Verdi’s Nabucco catalyzed a resurgence of hope for liberation and unification. Inspired by historical events but told by fictional characters in four acts, it is set in Babylonian times and tells the tale of the Assyrian king Nabucco, who wages war on the Hebrews of Israel. As Nabucco’s mental state deteriorates, his ruthless, illegitimate daughter Abigaille usurps the throne and, exhorted by the corrupt High Priest of Baal, unleashes a reign of terror on the Hebrews. No one, not even her sister Fenena, who treasonously loves a Hebrew man, is safe. In the end, a deranged Nabucco, reduced to wallowing in a prison cell, and a disgraced Abigaille, having poisoned herself in horror at the destruction wrought by her arrogance, pray to the God of the Hebrews for forgiveness.

With legendary tenor maestro Plácido Domingo in the title role, operaphiles knew an astonishing performance was in store. Powerful and seamless, Domingo’s vocals were unrivaled in their expressiveness and capacity to convey a wide range of heavy emotions. From the purposeful theatrics of his body movements to his dramatic lyrical delivery, the 76-year-old opera veteran proved his unparalleled position at the forefront of the opera world — a reputation built over a lifetime of accolades and now 50 years gracing the LA Opera stage.

The LA Opera will perform Guiseppe Verdi’s Nabucco through Nov. 19. Photo courtesy of LA Opera

Complementing him on stage as the female lead was Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille in her LA Opera debut. At times summoning both ferocity and anguish, Monastyrska also exhibited dynamic vocals and a formidable stage presence, effortlessly portraying Abigaille at the peak of her regime as well as the depths of her despair.

The vivacity of the show would not have been complete without the masterful contributions of live pit orchestra conductor James Conlon, director and scenery designer Thaddeus Strassberger, chorus director Grant Gershon and costume designer Mattie Ullrich.

In particular, Strassberger’s innovative and intricate set design served to fully immerse the audience in the opera experience. In addition to impeccably detailed sets that conveyed an uncanny sense of depth on such a small stage, Strassberger’s mise en scène was aesthetically symmetrical and made dramatic use of shadows and chiaroscuro lighting with help from lighting designer Mark McCullough.

Perhaps most impressive, however, was Strassberger’s integration of Verdi’s time period into the biblical period during which the story is set. The stage was framed with box seats reminiscent of Milan’s La Scala opera house, where Nabucco first premiered, and saw members of Austrian nobility clad in 19th-century garb also watching the performance — a play within a play. In the end, the cast engages with the Austrian spectators and Italian dissidents hold up flags saluting Verdi to elucidate the metaphorical significance of Nabucco as a timeless tale of political strife.

Midway into the curtain calls, the cast once again broke into song, this time inviting the audience to sing along and join the rebellion. Original Italian lyrics, instead of their English translations, were displayed overhead and the entire Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was swept up in the spirit of Verdi, once again demonstrating Strassberger’s imaginative stage direction.

From top to bottom, Nabucco is an indisputable masterpiece that exudes elegance, artistry and political awareness at every turn.