Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nabucco at the Minnesota Opera

It's that time of year again for visiting The Minnesota Opera with my cartoonist friends at the Black Hat Collective.

Armed with our pens, paper, pencils, and paintbrushes, we got to enjoy some fine performance while making ourselves useful by bringing you all cartoons from the theatre!

This month's show is NABUCCO by Giuseppe Verdi
(click here for tickets)

The opera tells the story of King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) from the bible, and the staging uses a stage-within-a-stage setup to draw parallels between the Assyrian oppression of the Jews and the Austrian oppression of Italy in Verdi's time.

To learn more about the plot, the set, the history, and my watercolor cartoons, click "read more"

(I won't tldr you this time, I promise):

Verdi wrote this opera when he was 29.  He had only written two operas before this - the second of which was a major flop at the box office.  Before starting to work on Nabucco, Verdi was planning to quit the opera scene and return to his home town to be a church organist.  However, at the last minute, Verdi's "agent" of sorts, impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, demanded that Verdi compose the music for a libretto (script) that another composer had turned down - Nabucco.  The other composer, Otto Nicolai, had thought Nabucco was dumb.  So when Verdi premiered the opera to critical acclaim and great financial success, he was mondo jelly. Nicolai wrote some mean things (as composers are often wont to do) but then faded into obscurity.  Verdi, on the other hand, was catapulted back into what would be a long and fruitful career as one of Opera's faves.

It is believed that much of Nabucco's appeal came from the fact that Italy was under occupation by Austrian forces at the time, so Italian people identified with the Jews who were under Nebuchadnezzar's occupation.  They say that when the opera premiered, the song Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate ("Fly, thought, on golden wings"
) was so moving to Italian audiences that they demanded an encore, in defiance of Austrian law.


The MN opera has provided us with a stage-within-a-stage structure.  When the curtain rises, we see a miniature set of audience boxes on stage, and a fake curtain just past it.  During the overture, a group of Austrian soldiers and aristocrats march and waltz (respectively) to their "seats."  Then the fake curtain rises to reveal lavishly painted trompe-l'oeil backdrops modeled after historical opera sets from the 1840s.  Then the singers, in the role of 1840s opera singers who just happen to be playing biblical figures, emerge.

In their first song, the Jewish people lament their conditions and sing lyrics along the lines of "Death to the invaders!  Give our country back to us!" and as they sing, they occasionally turn and point their lines directly at the actors playing the "Austrian" audience, who shuffle awkwardly in their seats.

In brief, it's really damn meta.


On one hand the plot is convoluted, on the other hand it's humorously simplistic. 

As the story begins, Nabucco has already invaded Jerusalem and added it to his empire, and the Jews have decided that the best way to get Nabucco to leave their country is to kidnap his youngest daughter, Fenena, and hold her hostage.  Fenena comes willingly because she is in a relationship with a Jewish boy named Ismael.  However, Nabucco's oldest daughter, the strong and powerful Abigaile, appears.  Abigaile declares that she, too, is in love with Ismael, and that she will only spare the Jews if he leaves Fenena for herself.  Ismael refuses so Abigaile swears revenge on her sister and on all the Jews.

The Gnarly-Fingernailed
High Priest of Baal

Then Nabucco arrives to put an end to the Iraelites' (rather ill-advised) plan.  He defies them to kill his daughter and see how that makes him feel but Ismael intervenes to protect her.  As punishment for their shenanigans, Nabucco orders the temple destroyed, the city burned down, and turns the Jews into slaves.  Then Nabucco leaves to go kill people somewhere else.

While Nabucco is gone, he appoints Fenena to rule in his place.  This confounds Abigaile, because she is not only the oldest, but Fenena is a demonstrated traitor.  Abigaile investigates to discover that she is not actually Nabucco's daughter, but a daughter of slaves (see: Loki).  Abigail then swears revenge on her father.

Then the gnarly-fingernailed High Priest of Baal tells Abigaile that Fenena has just freed the Jews from slavery and that Abigaile should send out a fake letter saying that Nabucco was killed in battle so that she can become Queen.

Abigaile does so, but just as she comes and takes the crown from Fenena, Nabucco returns from battle.
Abigaile as Queen
He takes one look at what's going on, has a "what's all this, then?" moment, and decides that he's had enough of this insubordination and religious squabbling.  Nabucco declares that he is not just king anymore, but God. 

...At which point God promptly strikes him with lightning and renders him feeble.

But it keeps going!

Abigaile says "Finally!  My chance to lead!" and declares herself Queen.  Her first order of business is to... throw a fancy parade.  But THEN she gets revenge on all her enemies by ordering Fenena and all the Jews executed, and throwing Nabucco in jail.

At this point Nabucco realizes that he was wrong all along, and converts to Judaism.  At which point God magically restores his strength, gives him his army back, saves his daughter from death, and lets the Jews have Israel back.


When the story is over, the actors come out and bow to the fake Austrian audience, which applauds and throws roses.  But then, the actors get a twinkle in their eye and run back stage.  They emerge carrying large Italian flags (which might as well have been "F-YOU, AUSTRIA" banners)  and sing their encore of "Fly, thought, on golden wings"


Okay so on one hand, I can see why Otto Nicolai might have turned Nabucco down and why Verdi had to be forced into it —in fact, according to the MN Opera program, Verdi even "angrily threw the book across the room" upon his first read-through—  'Cause this libretto kinda sucks.  It's riddled with Deus-ex-Machina, poorly conceived plans, weakly motivated characters, and silly love triangles.

Of course, nobody can do anything about the libretto because it's 160 years old (and I'm happy about THAT because it means Temistocle Solera won't be writing any angry comments on my blog.)

MORE IMPORTANTLY, Verdi is great!  The music definitely deserves that encore it's always given.  The performers have fascinating interviews online where they talk about how they interpret the characters and how much they love working in this family.

And this stage.  Oh my goodness, this stage.  The MN Opera has done something truly awesome and meta with their "stage within a stage" thing.  Furthermore, the 1840s-style backdrops are beautifully painted and impeccably researched.  I wish I had more pictures to show you.  If you've seen stuff by Georges Melies or Terry Gilliam, this is based on the kind of theatrical design they were trying to emulate.

Painted on a flat backdrop, or sometimes, layers of flat backdrops arranged like giant paper toy theatres.

So the answer is yes, you should go see it.  Buy tickets here.

P.S.  Anything that I said or haven't said can be supplemented by these really informative videos that the Opera has put out.

TTFN, dear readers!

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