Sooner or later, most opera companies get around to “Nabucco.” Sure, its music is pretty raw stuff up against the Verdi the whole world loves; still, the occasional flashes of the maturing composer are unmistakable and important. The opera also comes with a swell history, and that keeps it alive in the repertory. Whether “alive” exactly describes the L.A. Opera’s first go at the work is, however, open to debate.
History? “Nabucco” (1842) was Verdi’s third opera and first smashing success. One four-minute stretch, wherein the chorus of captive Israelites laments the loss of their homeland to a sublime melody sublime, was all it took to put the work over the top. It was taken as an anthem of hope for Verdi’s countrymen as they endured similar heartbreak under Austrian occupation. At Verdi’s funeral in 1901, some 200,000 mourners — or so the story goes — spontaneously burst into that very tune on the streets of Milan, Italy.
Somewhat fewer choristers found their way around Michael Yeargan’s drab, tacked-together sets at the L.A. Opera’s “Nabucco,” so poorly lit that mad King Nabucco in his red jammies at times became virtually invisible against Alan Burrett’s red lighting. Even that, however, was a warm glow compared to that given off by the work itself, receiving the usual workaday musical direction from conductor Lawrence Foster.
As King Nabucco’s meanie daughter, Abigaille, Maria Guleghina, much-favored among the Metropolitan Opera’s fair-size roster of loud sopranos, roughed up a few notes along the way but pulled down a deserved ovation for her one big aria. Lado Ataneli, in the title role, used his small but clear baritone effectively, most of all in his pain-racked duet with his daughter — the first of the great baritone-soprano duets (e.g., “Rigoletto”) that thread through the entire Verdi canon. Jose Luis Duval adequately delivered what must be the shortest leading-tenor role in all opera; Arutjun Kotchinian was the proud Zaccaria.
All told, it was one of those nights when rickety production values and merely OK musical values stood out starkly against the company’s $170 top-ticket rate. Eventually, Verdi surpassed the merely good try that “Nabucco” represented; the L.A. Opera has had better nights than this as well.