|Robin Bradley, Leslie Swanson, David Serero, Javier Ortiz, and Michael Celentano|
onstage at the Center for Jewish History in Verdi's Nabucco
That warm feeling we get when hearing Verdi's "Va Pensiero", also known as "The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" is largely due to Verdi's stirring music and the poetic words of librettist Temistocle Solera. Last night, at the Center for Jewish History, we heard the chorus performed by the five members of the cast of an abbreviated version of Verdi's Nabucco. The opera premiered in 1842 at La Scala, established Verdi's reputation, and has been a part of the repertory ever since.
Presented by The American Sephardi Federation and directed and adapted by baritone David Serero, we heard some fine singing and accompaniment by Shawn Chang, substituting for the orchestra. Although die-hard opera goers might complain about the cuts and lack of orchestra, we enjoyed this version and so did the audience which happily included some youngsters. What a great way to introduce someone to opera. This version was direct and to the point, emphasizing the major arias, eliminating extraneous characters, and telling the story well without any longueurs.
Mr. Serero himself used his powerful baritone well and created a Nebuchadnezzar to be reckoned with. His mad spell, which in the bible lasted for seven years, lasted only about seven bars of music-- but was very convincing! For purposes both dramatic and romantic, operatic libretti take huge liberties with history, much as the stories in the bible take liberties with historical facts.
Nebuchadnezzar was the most long-lasting and powerful king of Babylonia five centuries B.C.E. He did in fact conquer Jerusalem and destroy the temple. In the Book of Daniel, by virtue of Daniel's dream interpretation, he converted to Judaism-- but that is not supported historically. Every culture creates its own legends.
Even the popularity of "Va Pensiero" is surrounded by legend. Indeed it was sung at Verdi's funeral in 1901, but it was not a spontaneous demonstration. It was orchestrated for political reasons. As a matter of fact, its patriotic status probably originated after Italy's reunification. Still, it's an attractive myth that the work motivated Italy's attempts to throw off the yoke of foreign domination. To each his own myth!
The creation of the masterpiece by Verdi and Solera incorporated, as so many operas do, a romance. The Babylonian princess Fenena, well sung last night by mezzo-soprano Robin Bradley, and Ismaele (nephew of the King of Jerusalem) equally well sung by tenor Michael Celentano are having theirs. In the opera, Fenena is used by the Judeans as a hostage, so when Ismaele frees her he is accused of treason.
By far the most difficult role in the opera is that of Abigaille, supposed daughter of Nebuchadnezzar but actually the child of a slave. She has been scorned by Ismaele and wants vengeance. She seizes the crown from Nebuchadnezzar when he has his lapse of sanity.
By now, dear reader, you must have realized what a challenge this role offers! The gauntlet was taken up by dramatic soprano Leslie Swanson who exhibited the depth of texture of a mezzo-soprano in the lower register and the flexibility and power for the high notes. It was an exciting performance.
The cast was rounded out by the fine bass Javier Ortiz who played the role of Zaccaria the High Priest of the Jews. There were no titles but reading the summary of the plot and picking up a few words in Italian gave us a clear picture of the dramatic arc.
We are always interested in what Mr. Serero has in the works and we heard about a Nozze di Figaro in the pipeline, as well as a Romeo and Juliet based on a Sefardic family at odds with an Ashkenazi family. For those who may not know, these are two branches of the Hebrew tradition created during the diaspora. Forgive us our feeble attempt at humor but we are seeing matzo balls being hurled from one side and felafel balls from the other! We can scarcely wait.
(c) meche kroop