Saturday, May 19, 2012

We're All a Little Mad Here

Yesterday evening I went to see Nabucco at the Kennedy Center with my most excellent brother.  Nabucco, which is very, very loosely based on the story of the biblical king Nebuchadnezzar, is the third opera by Giuseppe Verdi, the composer better known for Rigoletto, La Traviatta, and Aida.  Chances are that even if you’re not an opera fan, you’ve heard one of the following somewhere …

 "La Donna Mobile"


 "Triumphal March"

Well, there you have it.  Verdi does a hep tune.  The big hit in Nabucco, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves (“Va, pensiero”), comes about three quarters of the way through.  There’s an urban legend of sorts that this chorus (which was sung spontaneously in the streets at Verdi’s funeral) is the one that made Nabucco Verdi’s breakout opera, because of its resonance with the Italian Risorgimento.  A good story, but untrue: at the very least, the first night audience did not ask for an encore of “Va, pensiero”; they requested to hear a different chorus, one which is more obscure today—“Immenso Jeovha.”

I had never seen Nabucco before, and didn’t know the plot at all (other than the title character and his insanity, it’s pretty much made up, so knowing the Bible gets you nowhere).  I thought it would be more interesting to be surprised by what was going to happen, so I didn’t bother to bone up with a synopsis.  Hey, what’re supertitles for?

I got to the Kennedy Center early, and killed half and hour or so taking pictures of squirrels …

… red flowers …


…golden pillars …


… pricy hotels …


… and the rather out-there sculpture of Don Quixote that adorns the hill northeast of the building.  Don Quixote had several squirrels with him too, and the sun was behind him, so regrettably none of the shots captured much detail.

Once we were inside and the lights had gone down I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision not to do a little history on the opera.  While WNO is far from being the most out-there of opera companies, neither are they known for toeing a traditional line in their productions.  Partway through the overture, I began to accept the wisdom of my doubts.  A man dressed in Mozartian togs ... came out and started lighting some lamps along the edge of the stage.  Some soldiers did a little parade.  Some ladies and gentlemen in nineteenth-century ballroom dress waltzed lackadaisically across and seated themselves in opera boxes constructed on the stage’s edge.  The lamplighter made a clumsy sign of the cross before exiting.

The message was clear: you are about to see a period piece.  We don’t think you can relate to this opera as it is, so we are going to stage it as a play within a play—a sort of curiosity that will show you how those bourgeois dunderheads in 1842 thought, and what sort of spectacle they enjoyed.

I couldn’t help thinking of the last two WNO operas we’d seen, Lucia di Lammermoor and Cosi fan tutteCosi had been updated to the modern era; they had played it as relevant as Seinfeld.  To be sure, that’s always easier to do with comedy; and of course, Cosi has the advantage of a fabulous libretto by Da Ponte—in contrast to Nabucco’s extremely clumsy one.  Lucia was staged fairly straight, set in the period in which it was written (not the one in which the story takes place), which is fairly standard in modern productions.  I had some serious reservations about the amount of extraneous sadism stuffed into the already gruesome tale, but at least the production wasn’t blasphemous.

Am I about to suggest that the production of Nabucco was?  Oh yes.  Subtly so, but yes.
To explain, I’ll have to inflict the synopsis on you.  I’ll make this as painless as I can.  Here’s the basic storyline (or you can go read it in full on Wikipedia).

Act 1.  587 BC.  The Jews lose to Nabucco.
Act 2.  Nabucco goes off to war, leaving his younger daughter, Fenena, as his regent.  His older daughter, Abigaille, doesn’t like this; and neither do the High Priest of Baal and the Magi minions—Fenena is just too sympathetic to the Jews.  The HPB and minions volunteer to help Abigaille seize the throne of Babylon.  Just as they’re executing their coup, Nabucco comes back.  He decides that since Baalianism is obviously a crock (breeds traitors, what?) and Judaisim is obviously a crock (they can’t win battles, duh), then he might as well do his own religious thing and declare himself God.  He is struck by lightening and goes batty.
Act 3.  Abigaille has taken power with the help of the HPB and minions.  They get ready to kill Fenena and the Jews.  Nabucco, still a little off from the thunderbolt, tries vainly to regain his throne by pleading with Abigaille.  (Good luck, dude.)  Meanwhile, the Jews sing about their homeland (“Va, pensiero”).
Act 4.  Nabucco comes to, no longer batty.  He sees Fenena being led to execution.  He pleads for God’s forgiveness, promising to become a Jew himself and to rebuild the Temple if he is able to save Fenena and become king again.  Some of his loyal soldiers, realizing he’s no longer crazy, help him escape.  They rush in and save Fenena, who is about to be sacrificed on the altar of Baal.  The idol of Baal is overthrown and smashed to bits.  Nabucco tells the Jews they are free, the Temple will be rebuilt, etc.  Abigaille, hearing the news, takes poison offstage, and then comes on to sing about it, ask Fenena’s forgiveness, and die.  The Jewish High Priest says thanks to Nabucco.

Get it?  Got it.  Good.

Except that wasn’t the way WNO staged it.  They staged the entire fourth act as if Nabucco were hallucinating the whole thing.  (No idol crumbling.  Bummer.  But we didn’t know there was supposed to be, because … well … I hadn’t read the libretto.)  Crazy, no?  My brother was dubious when I proposed the hypothesis to him; he thought the weird lighting, and the straw, and the fact that Nebby kept clutching his brow were just the designers trying to be artsy.

Or not.  There’s the playbill, and playbills don’t lie.  The director will always tell you what he thinks in the playbill.  And this is how Director and Set Designer Thaddeus Strassberger tells the tale of the fourth act:

A prison cell[Please note that stage direction.  This act was originally in two scenes, the first in prison, and the second not.  In the Strassberger production, there is no set change.]  Wracked with guilt and suffering from a worsening derangement [?  I thought he was getting better …], Nabucco is uncertain whether he is awake or trapped in a nightmare.  He imagines [?!] Fenena being led away to the death to which he has doomed her.  Losing the last shred of his faith, he prays to the God of the Hebrews for forgiveness, pledging to convert his people (“Dio di Guida!”).  Attempting to intervene on his daughter’s behalf, he realizes that he is indeed a prisoner and powerless to help her.  Though believing [?!!] that he has been rescued by Abdallo and that his army is once again loyal to him, he sees the death decree being carried out before him.  [Oh.  That’s why they had that corpse carried along the back of the stage.  I get it now!]  He hears Zaccaria [the Jewish High Priest] hail Fenena as a martyr to the cause of the Israelites as she resignes herself to death (“Oh, dischiuso e il firmamento”).  The distraught Nabucco renounces Baal and, as a sign of his conversion, orders the god’s idol to be destroyed.  [Nothing happens.]  His senses failing him once again, he wonders if he sees Abigaille approaching.  Having poisoned herself in horror at what her ambition has brought upon her kingdom [Wait, so did she really poison herself, or is he imagining that too?  I’m all confused now …], Abigaille confesses her crimes, hoping that it is not too late for Ismaele and Fenena to be reunited.  [Jewish boy loves Babylonian girl.  It’s a minor plot element.]  Slipping in and out of consciousness, she prays to Jehovah for pardon (“Su me … morente”) as the Hebrews reaffirm that their God will always raise up those who are afflicted.  [Except that, in this staging, he doesn’t.]

It wasn’t enough that Nabucco has an already creakonimous plot and flat, uninteresting characters.  It wasn’t enough to stage the play-within-a-play as a reminder to we-the-audience that we’re watching something irrelevant to real life.  No, they also had to change the ending lest we walk away with the impression that maybe, just maybe, calling on the name of God has power.

It was almost funny, reading some of the other parts of the playbill, where the writers tried to delve into the psychological side of the characters.  Mon freres, there is no psychological side to these characters.  Nabucco is a long pageant with a plain moral.  You choose to change it from a pageant with a moral into something between a history channel program and a study of the latest lit fic hit, and you lose whatever power the libretto had—because the words on the page simply haven’t got that much in them.  To the extent that those words and the pageant they depict mean anything, or leave the audience with anything, it is a simple, straightforward message—one Mr. Stassberger et al. were obviously unwilling to risk conveying—I the Lord Am Your God.

One final note on the anti-religiousness of the production.   A lot of swords get waved about in the first act, and Fenena spends oodles of time lying of the floor tied up and threatened by the Jews.  As far as I can make out (regrettably, I couldn’t find the full libretto in English), the only time she’s tied up in the more conventional, original stagings is … yup, right.  When she’s about to be sacrificed to Baal.

Way to reverse the images, WNO.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed the evening.  The singing was good (not as good as Lucia—which was superb—but about the same level as Cosi—which was excellent); the costumes were great; the sets were fairly imaginative.  I was, as people in Austenworld say, exceedingly diverted.  But I prefer not to get my diversions from folks who think it’s intelligent and sophisticated to insult my beliefs.  Just saying.

As we drove off my mind flew back to the chorus that Verdi’s audience had demanded to hear again.

Immenso Jeovha,
Chi non ti sente?
Chi non è polvere
Innanzi a te?
Tu spandi un'iride?...
Tutto è ridente.
Tu vibri il fulmine?...
L'uom più non è.

Mighty Jehova,
Who does not know you?
Who is not dust
Before you?
You fling out a rainbow—
All is laughter.
You shake the lightning—
Man is no longer.

They staged that with Nabucco in his cell, with Nabucco imagining the chorus and principals singing around him.  ’Cause you know, only crazy or imaginary people would sing that sort of thing.

Then my mind flew back again—to my pre-opera photo-session with the statue of Don Quixote.  They thought the Don was crazy too, and perhaps he was.  He was also a better and finer man than any of the sane people he encountered.  And yet despite that nobility, Cervantes has Don Quixote die repenting of his “folly” … and Huxley has the Savage hang himself … and Orwell says Smith loves Big Brother as he’s shot …

For some reason, even the people who sympathize with belief seem to think believers will all succumb in the end.  Faith, even the non-dangerous kind of faith, is a primitive thing, and will die.  But true Faith is more primitive than they realize, and consequently immortal.  Faith will be with man “all days, even to the consummation of the world.”

I found a more … traditional version of Nabucco on Youtube.  I haven’t seen it all yet, but it looks promising.  Behold, the relevant scene:

Baal’s idol falls around 5:30, in case you’re wondering.  And “Immenso Jehova” starts at 7:10.


  1. Actually going to the opera has become something of a crap shoot, sadly. This is why I am so fond of the radio: over the radio, I can't tell that La Sonnambula has been staged as events occurring during rehearsal for a production of . . . La Sonnambula. Even better, there are old recordings, ones that have neither the claptrap of modernist stagings nor the inane babbling of that vacuous harpy Margaret Juntwait.

    I was generally pleased with the several performances I was able to see at the Lyric when I was in Chicago, but even they couldn't help tinkering with Il Seraglio. It's a harsh world out there.

  2. Titus! Fellow opera fan! I'd no idea. Yes, you're right; I have to hold my breath every time I go, and it is probably good for my sanity and my soul that I can't afford to go often. There are actually a few recent productions that I enjoyed--but they are ones on video, from REALLY big places like the Met and La Scala, where apparently the name recognition is great enough that the producers don't have to ALWAYS be controversial.

    Interesting to hear that about the Lyric. I've hear that they're a little less crazy there than some other houses (maybe it's the Midwest influence?) but I've never been there ...

  3. Hey now, don't put words in my mouth. I said nothing about why I thought the director/producer made Nabucco behave like he did. I don't call things artsy unless they belong in a knick knack shop.

    I am strongly inclined by the program to think that the producer wanted to give the option of thinking Nabucco was hallucinating, but did not want to make that the only way to read it.
    In my opinion you are being a little overly-pessimistic.

  4. I paraphrased! It's true though--you didn't say artsy. You're more polite than that. ;)

    The program. Hm. Well, I dunno. The text of the program seems pretty clear to me (that is, clearly intending to convey that Nabucco's out of it) ... but ... that's me.