The company will present Verdi’s “Nabucco,” which has never been done here, in some other “never-before” ways — giant projections, covered orchestra pit and musicians behind the singers.
Even before Aidan Lang assumed directorship of Seattle Opera last fall, he had discovered a glaring gap in the company’s repertoire: “Nabucco,” the opera that catapulted 28-year-old composer Giuseppe Verdi to fame in 1842, had never been mounted in the half-century of Seattle Opera’s existence.
Convinced of the opera’s importance, Lang became determined to produce it in a manner that would make a “cast-iron” case for the work as dramatically viable, potent opera theater.
Why the need for such a heavy-metal defense? First, there is Temistocle Solera’s quintessentially 19th-century libretto. Populated by what Lang coyly calls “fairly extreme characters” who would make many a rock star seem tame by comparison, the story revolves around megalomaniacal sixth-century Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (aka Nabucco) and his plot to invade Jerusalem and enslave the Jewish people.
By Giuseppe Verdi. With Carlo Montanaro, conductor, Aug. 8-22, McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
Unbeknown to the king, both of his daughters, Fenena and Abigaille, are in love with Ismaele, nephew of the king of Jerusalem. Into this little potboiling caldron of a love triangle is thrown the next shocker: Abigaille is the daughter of a slave.
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This revelation leads to a huge outpouring of fury and contempt, plans for revenge, divinely inspired insanity, instant redemption upon conversion, and ultimate salvation for almost everyone except Abigaille.
While the story may play loose with its biblical references for the sake of sensationalism, Lang is quick to point out it is ultimately no less credible than what we see on TV news today. (Think Donald Trump.) And, in contrast to social media’s countless tawdry tales of triviality masquerading as importance, Nabucco’s story is one of epic grandeur.
“What really attracts me is how direct and compelling it is,” says Lang. “The characters are extreme, but that’s what gives it the edge, because opera is about extreme emotion. It’s raw, it’s elemental. It touches on madness, and it touches on all the Verdian themes of parents and children, and the underbelly of political power. It’s all there in embryonic form, and it’s what we see when we turn on the news today.”
RELATED STORY: Jamie Barton in ‘Nabucco’: ‘Fenena fits me like a glove’
Lang’s other huge challenge was to find a soprano — in this case, two, since the opera is double cast — who can bowl over audiences by singing rather than screaming the role of Abigaille. When Lang says, “Abigaille is almost a crazy role to sing; it’s a very, very challenging piece of writing,” he speaks the truth. (In this production, the role will be performed by Mary Elizabeth Williams and Raffaella Angeletti.)
More often than not, the character makes her formidable presence known by venting fury in full-throated, multi-octave runs that wrecked the voice of at least one soprano, Elena Souliotis, and persuaded two other greats, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland, to steer clear of the role.
Discovering a soprano who can spit venom onstage and emerge unscathed is one of the greatest thrills an opera lover can experience.
“Probably Abigaille’s [role] shows naiveté on Verdi’s part as a young man, because he hadn’t fully learned what the voice can and can’t do,” Lang acknowledges. “But theaters were smaller. We don’t know if people sang full on, but they didn’t have to fill big spaces that they have to fill today.”
With this recognition arose a novel solution to how to mount “Nabucco” in a manner that does full justice to its story without sacrificing a single soprano. Together with Seattle Opera technical director and set designer Bob Schaub; Bob Bonniol, principal video designer at MODE Studios in Seattle; and director François Racine, Lang has used the parallels between the stories of “Nabucco” and “King Lear” — one of the Shakespearean tragedies Verdi longed to set to music — to create a staging that harks back to Shakespeare’s intimate Globe Theater.
In an effort to reduce the barrier between singers and audience, Lang has extended the stage over the orchestra pit and moved the orchestra onstage, behind the singers.
“The protagonists don’t have to be big and rhetorical in the way they sing or act, which happens when you’re stuck in the middle of this monumental biblical scenery and at the distance the orchestra pit provides,” he said. “It gives people an opportunity to act the piece with a level of subtlety and nuance that we’re used to today while retaining its grandeur.”
“I suspect the principals, most of the time, will be 6 feet from the front row,” Schaub explained. “What we’ve found is that there’s no structural impediment to the sound waves of their voice once they break through the proscenium. When voices fill the room in a different way than our audience has ever heard them before, it could be very exciting.”
Equally exciting are the projections that will be used onstage — they’ll be 80 by 45 feet, bigger than in most movie theaters. Using some ingenious framing, the goal is to create a window onto the world of “Nabucco” through which architecture, location, psychology, and emotion are revealed.
“Because it’s an epic story, it will be an epic story visually,” says Bonniol. “Some of our technologies will be familiar to people who create virtual sets in movie fantasies, but we’re doing it with a great deal of sensitivity. We’re not interested in people coming to see a lush and opulent-looking video game. Because everything we’re doing is motivated by the music, it’s inherently going to act as one holistic organism.
“Hopefully people will come away saying, ‘What an amazing experience of that opera I just had.’ ”