A review of Seattle Opera’s first-ever staging of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” a biblical epic loaded with eye-catching visuals and stellar voices.

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It has taken Seattle Opera 50 years to produce Verdi’s “Nabucco,” and during those years, the audience demand has not been exactly deafening. On the plus side, this often-neglected early opera has some great tunes that hint at Verdi’s even greater works to come (like “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” and “Aida”). On the minus side is the plot, full of bizarrely abrupt reversals of fortune, over-the-top characters, and instantaneous religious conversions.

But few people attend opera for the plot; it’s the music and the musicians that make the difference. Here is where Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco” shines, with Carlos Montanaro presiding over an orchestra and cast that are almost uniformly excellent. They’re presented in a highly unusual setting, another company first: the stage has been extended forward over the orchestra pit, and the orchestra is onstage with the cast and chorus.

Sometimes this concept works — you can really hear the orchestra, and the playing is excellent (kudos to Montanaro, and to principal cellist Eric Han and his section). Visually, however, it’s strange, particularly when the chorus is situated upstage of the orchestra and the principal singers are downstage, so the orchestra is in the middle of the action. Often stage director François Racine has the principals addressing the chorus, but looking the wrong way — facing the audience while the chorus is way behind them. (Conductor Montanaro also faces the opposite direction from the principal singers, which looks odd.)

OPERA REVIEW

Seattle Opera: ‘Nabucco’

By Giuseppe Verdi, with Carlos Montanaro, conducting, through Aug. 22, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).

The new stage setup works well acoustically for the singers, though, who are now closer to the audience. And these are singers well worth hearing. The undoubted heroine of the production is the bad girl Abigaille, with Mary Elizabeth Williams singing this ultra-challenging role with fearless panache. She commands the stage with her well-nuanced characterization and with the firepower of her mighty soprano, though sometimes there’s a bit too much firepower. That big, luscious voice is pushed hard throughout the evening, acquiring an edge and a few pitch uncertainties (two high Cs were slightly under target). When Williams relaxed the volume a bit, the tone blossomed into real beauty.

Gordon Hawkins is a masterly Nabucco, with convincing acting in a role that requires him to be overbearing, then feeble, then contrite (it’s not often that an operatic title character is struck by lightning). Even allowing for the effects of the lightning strike, Hawkins’ voice sometimes sounded a bit underpowered, but rose to greatness in his final scene.

Jamie Barton, an international prizewinner of considerable renown, is dazzling as Fenena, with a showstopper Act IV aria that displayed the lyricism and agility of this remarkable voice. Her Ismaele, tenor Russell Thomas, sang with a clarion tone quality, polish, and power. Christian Van Horn was a first-rate Zaccaria; Jonathan Silvia, Karen Early Evans, and Eric Neuville did well in supporting roles.

Vivid projections from scenery designer Robert Schaub and video designer Robert Bonniol worked well, particularly the imaginative depiction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the disintegration of the statue of Baal.

The chorus, prepared by John Keene, did a masterly job with the famous “Va, pensiero,” in one of the production’s most stirring scenes.

Since “Nabucco” apparently comes around only slightly more often than Halley’s comet, Seattle-area opera lovers should seize this chance to check out some early Verdi — and some remarkable voices.

Seattle Opera’s first production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” will feature giant set projections, a covered orchestra pit and musicians behind the singers. (Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)