Opera’s stirring ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ is matched by Benedum’s powerful production

Opera’s stirring ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ is matched by Benedum’s powerful production

Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross made her Pittsburgh debut in this opera and mastered the “punishingly” difficult role. (Photo provided)
Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross made her Pittsburgh debut in this opera and mastered the “punishingly” difficult role. (Photo provided)

After a more than 40-year absence from the stage, the Pittsburgh Opera resurrected Giuseppe Verdi’s 1841 opera, “Nabucco,” last week at the Benedum.

Murmurings of “brava” and “I love it” were heard, as the enraptured audience was swept up in the evocative, biblical libretto of King Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the Babylonian Jews, a story found in the Book of Jeremiah. Projected English translations assisted the audience’s ability to follow the storyline.

“Nabucco’s” main thematic elements are exile and loss of freedom. “Not only are you getting a great sort of tale from a long time ago, you are also seeing psychology being played out,” said Christopher Hahn, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera, noting that “Nabucco” also contained themes of power, dominance, rivalry and love of a father for his daughter.

The role of Abigaille, Nabucco’s power-hungry daughter, was played brilliantly by Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross, who made her Pittsburgh opera debut in this production. Boross hit impossibly high notes, with a vocal range matched only by the emotional range she and the rest of the cast displayed throughout the night.

In fact, the role of Abigaille is so “punishingly” difficult, says Hahn, that there are only a handful of sopranos who are willing, or able, to take on the role.

Rounding out the stellar cast was Mark Delevan as Nabucco, Oren Gradus as Zaccaria and Raymond Very as Ismaele.

Verdi wrote this bel canto style opera soon after the deaths of his wife and only child. Although “Nabucco” is not Verdi’s most well-known opera, (think “La Traviata,” “Aida” and “Rigoletto”), it is the piece that made him famous.

But it makes an infrequent appearance in most opera company repertoires.

“It’s not done very much. Musically, it’s a beautiful piece, but dramatically, it’s difficult because it’s like an oratorio,” said stage director and co-designer, Bernard Uzan, who used projections to set the scenes and change the mood.

Hahn said he strives for a balance of operatic repertoire each season, and there is an enormous richness from which to choose.

“It would be more sensible of me to schedule top popular pieces, but it’s not enriching for the audience,” he said. “It’s a mark of distinction for the company that we can bring pieces to the stage that are not in the normal range of presentation. This happens in the really big companies, who can afford to have a big mix, but it’s rarer among regional companies such as ours.

“It’s very well known in the opera world as a fantastic vehicle to show off the chorus,” he added. “We’ve got a really excellent chorus in Pittsburgh.”

Undoubtedly, the most soul stirring moment of the night was when the chorus sang the lamentation, “Va, pensiero,” known to English speaking audiences as “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” after the Jewish temple was destroyed and they were exiled from Babylon.  

While the chorus was singing, images of Jews throughout the ages were projected on the screen behind the singers, including haunting images from concentration camps.

“All the projections have something to do with the time of the opera, except in the “Va, pensiero,” where I decided to show the persecution of the Jewish people through history,” explained Uzan. “I start with Egypt and go through Rome and through the Inquisition in Spain and North Africa and Poland and Russia, and of course, Germany and the Nazi camps, because I thought that was important to also explain the music.

“I think it was a good moment to show that unfortunately, persecution is not only in the time of Syrian Babylonia, but continues through the ages,” he added. “It’s a strong moment visually.”

The emotional scene concluded with a projection of the yellow Star of David, emblazoned with the word “Jude.”  

“Va, pensiero” has become a sort of a national anthem in Italy; when “Nabucco” is performed in Italy, the entire audience sings the song as an encore, says Uzan.

Uzan said that “Nabucco” was really about the persecution of the Italians by the Austrians: “He used the story of Nabucco to illustrate the problems in Italy.” That is why the opera has cross-cultural appeal, although the strong Jewish elements certainly draw large Jewish crowds as well.

Every other element, from the costuming to the brilliant orchestration by Antony Walker, made for an unforgettable experience. If Pittsburgh opera-goers are lucky, perhaps they will not have to wait for another 40 years before “Nabucco” returns to the stage.

English Translation of “Va, Pensiero”:

Ascend, sad thoughts,

on golden wings.

Alight on crests and hilltops.

Fly to the fragrant shores

And sweet air of home.

The Jordan’s beloved banks,

And Zion’s shattered towers.

Oh, my homeland.  So beautiful.

So lost.

Such cherished, bitter memories.

Golden harps of the prophets,

Why do you hang silently

from the willow?

The memories rise from our hearts,

Speaking to us of life as it once was.

Oh, as the weary Solomon,

Raise a cry of cruel lamentation …

… and let our cry inspire you,

O God,

to aid us in our suffering.

A video of the Pittsburgh Opera’s performance of “Va, pensiero” can be found on YouTube.

Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at hdaninhirsch@gmail.com.

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