By Lynn Venhaus
For the St. Louis premiere of Guiseppe Verdi’s Biblical epic “Nabucco,” Union Avenue Opera dreamed big.
Not since tackling Wagner’s Ring Cycle have they taken on such a massive show. The staging this four-act 1841 Italian opera is a towering achievement, both vocally and in mechanics.
They succeed in showcasing not only the top-shelf talent they attracted for this production, but also one of the best choruses featured on their cozy stage.
Conductor Stephen Hargreaves and Assistant Chorus Master Jon Garrett deep-dive into this glorious, grand signature Verdi sound – confidently creating big, bold orchestral and chorus statements. The 21-piece string-heavy orchestra is outstanding.
While the romantic and political complexities of this Old Testament story do not exactly comprise the finest libretto, the vocal prowess is stunning. This show’s cast has the vibrant voices to match the character requirements.
Librettist Temistocle Solero used the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel for the turbulent story, set in 587 B.C. The King of Babylon is Nabucco (Robert Garner), known as Nebuccadnezzer in English. He has seized control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. The other major storyline is that his daughter Fenena (Melody Wilson) and her evil half-sister Abigaille (Marsha Thompson) are both in love with Ismaele (Jesse Donner), the nephew of the King of Jerusalem.
While war rages between Babylon and Jerusalem, Abigaille pledges to save Ismaele’s people if he chooses her. But he denies her, so she turns ruthless and plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
First-time director Mark Freiman heightens the soap opera aspect of these treacherous elements, as the principals expressively sing about their emotional anguish and lament over their choices.
The accomplished Robert Garner is an imposing Nabucco, and when he needs to regain his sanity and strength in Act III, excels in his “Dio di Giuda” aria.
However, the two women are such dynamic forces and reach exhilarating heights as the warring half-sisters. In an impressive debut, soprano Marsha Thompson commands the stage as Abigaille, breathtaking in the demanding role. Her arias are something special, especially her dramatic coloratura “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno.”
The rising young star Melody Wilson – what an inspiring name! – demonstrates why she is one to watch, as she has one of the richest mezzo-sopranos I’ve heard. She stood out in her St. Louis debut in “Doubt” two summers ago, as part of “Regina” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis this season, and now, in this dramatic role as Fenena. What a range! Her prayer painting a picture of the heavens, “O dischius’è il firmament,” is exceptional.
Also standing out is bass Zachary James as Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, both in physical presence and in vocal prowess. He is particularly impressive performing “D’Egitto là su i lidi” that revives his people’s hopes in Act 1, and the prayer “Tu sul labbro” in Act 2.
Jesse Donner is solid as Ismaele, as is Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal and Karen Kanakis as Anna.
Bravo, fervent ensemble! They do indeed stir the soul in the famous “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” chorus. One of the most famous opera pieces of all-time is robustly delivered by Douglas Allebach, Madeline Black, Aleksandar Dragojevic, David Fournie, Jon Garrett, Rebecca Hetlelid, Michael Hawkins, Emily Heyl, Jeffrey Heyl, Lori Hoffman, Hannah Kauffmann, Amy Mazzeo, Jayde Mitchell, Joel Rogier, Tina Sayers and Caetlyn Van Bure in their masterful Italian vocal unison.
The cheers in Act 3 were lengthy and well-deserved, for it was quite a thrilling moment.
The technical aspects of this show are more demanding than usual at the Union Avenue Christian Church. With an idol that must fall and lightning that has to strike, the lighting design by Patrick Huber, who also did the set design, helps make those special effects happen. Theatre Marine Productions was the technical director.
Special mention must go to set designer Huber for creating the vertically tall set so that terrains, palace hallways, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon could be imagined. That was quite a feat, and that the ensemble didn’t seem as crowded on stage.
With the lyrical virtuosity and passionate spirit achieved here, Union Avenue Opera reaches new heights.
Verdi’s “Nabucco” is sung in Italian and presented by Union Avenue Opera on July 27-28 and Aug. 3-4 at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.
Photos by John Lamb
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.