Neither opera nor the Bible are known for sensible plots, so operas based on Bible stories can get really, really nuts. Nabucco, Verdi’s third opera, composed when he was in his twenties and barely climbing out of the depression he suffered after the deaths of his wife and his two little kids, is really, really nuts. The plot fits together like a blooper reel. Over the course of the four head-spinningly fast “parts” (such weirdly shaped chunks of drama they’re not even referred to as “acts”) the following events occur:
• Jerusalem is sacked.
• The Temple of Solomon is trashed
• The throne is usurped
• A pair of princesses fall for the same guy (who happens to be the enemy).
• One princess finds out she’s actually a slave.
• Two people are killed—but not really because it’s just a rumor so they come back to life.
• Somebody offs herself with poison.
• An idol crumbles literally.
• The terrarium-like Hanging Gardens of Babylon descend to earth.
• Guys march around with antler-headed Gandalf staffs and debate whose god is better than whose and somebody badmouths god and—BOOM!—he’s struck by lightning, which doesn’t kill him but turns him for a while into a madman.
William Blake’s famous watercolor monotype of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar (English for Nabucco) shows him long-haired, wild-eyed and crawling around on all fours. That about sums it up. The music (intense, intense, intense, sometimes tender and transcendent, occasionally meh) sounds like a beginner’s look-what-I-can-do collage.
This story, set in the Middle East and sort of based on scripture but mostly not, is about religious fanatics/ people of faith/ terrorists waging holy war on each other in order to prove that their god—be he Jehovah or Baal—is God. The parallels with religio-politics these days are too sadly obvious. For this production of Nabucco, Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang decided to lift the orchestra up out of the pit and onto the stage. This daring, if controversial decision makes obvious that the real “god” here is neither Jehovah nor Baal, but the conductor. The characters’ action takes place in front of or behind the orchestra, but always visible in the midst of all is Carlo Montaro, conducting perhaps more broadly, more dramatically than he might if he was tucked out of sight in the orchestra pit.
This production also dispenses with physical sets and uses projections instead. Sometimes this works. At other times, the choice suffers from the same look-what-I-can-do-showcase syndrome as Verdi’s music. The way some of the as images repeat or blur or morph into one another is more a neat trick than a necessary illumination to the movement of either the music or the story. The projections also lack a certain operatic (to say nothing of Babylonian) grandeur. Those 2-D terrariums never would have made the grade as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.