Considering Lyric Opera of Chicago's long and honorable history as a haven for the stage works of Giuseppe Verdi, his "Nabucco" has led a curiously spotty performance life at the company once dubbed "La Scala West."
Before Lyric ventured a new production of "Nabucco" to open its 1997-98 season, Verdi's breakthrough early opera had been staged there only once before, in 1963, when the great baritone Tito Gobbi sang the role of the tormented Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), and the formidable bass Boris Christoff portrayed his adversary, the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria.
Even with that, you don't take on this flawed but fascinating stage work unless you have a singer with vocal chops formidable enough to triumph in the soprano-killing role of Abigaille, the power-hungry warrior-maiden whose machinations drive the plot.
With Tatiana Serjan, Lyric has found such an artist, and the fearless Russian soprano electrified the Civic Opera House with her performance on Saturday night, when Lyric rolled out its revival of the 1997-98 production for the first time this season.
But the casting was strong in other roles as well, and director Michael Black's firmly disciplined and responsive Lyric Opera Chorus rose to its most impressive singing of the season so far, in an opera where the chorus plays a central role.
To safeguard authenticity in the pit, Lyric brought in Carlo Rizzi, an Italian conductor experienced in the Verdi style. He had Lyric's admirable orchestra playing with a full-bodied yet richly detailed sound, the robust trombones and distinctively colored woodwinds in particular.
In all, this was one of the most cohesive, exciting Verdi productions Lyric has mounted in years, filled with one crowd-pleasing moment after another.
The dramaturgy of "Nabucco" (1842) is quite static compared with that of the mature Verdi operas. A love triangle is embedded in a quasi-biblical tale of Hebrews battling Assyrian incursions into their homeland, falling to their oppressors and finally emerging victorious, with a bit of intervention from Jehovah.
Director Matthew Ozawa maintained an orderly traffic flow of more than 120 singers, choristers and extras, taking the opera Verdi wrote seriously, in a straightforward, essentially traditional production with modern design touches in the sets, costumes and projections.
If Verdi was dealing with inherited forms of Italian opera, he infused them with new vitality and imaginative genius that pointed the way for the evolution of the genre for the rest of the century. Amid all its blood and thunder, "Nabucco" overflows with tuneful arias, ensembles and choruses, including the famous chorus of Hebrew slaves longing for their lost homeland, "Va, pensiero."
That chorus became a powerful rallying cry for Italian nationalists of the 1840s struggling to throw off Austrian rule and unify the country. In modern times, it has become a virtual national anthem. In a 2011 performance of "Nabucco" at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, Chicago's ace Verdian, Riccardo Muti, led the audience and stage chorus in an emotional encore of "Va, pensiero" after delivering an impromptu speech in which he denounced government efforts to slash national arts funding.
The chorus was affectingly sung on Saturday, making it one of the highlights of the performance.
At heart, however, "Nabucco" is all about full-throttle singing in each of the principal roles, and the Lyric roster is equal to the heavyweight vocal challenges. All of them delivered what my British colleagues would call a jolly good sing.
The cast included Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as the tyrannical but conflicted Nabucco, and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, one of the breakout stars from Lyric's Ryan Opera Center program, as Fenena, Nabucco's virtuous daughter. It is Fenena's love for Ismaele, the nephew of the king of Jerusalem, that sparks Abigaille's thirst for revenge.
And the show marks the Lyric debuts of two fine Russian singers, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria and tenor Sergei Skorokhodov in the tenor role of Ismaele.
Few of Verdi's great soprano parts demand as much from a singer as Abigaille. The punishing vocal writing calls for the coloratura agility of a Norma, the fiery temperament of a Carmen and the stentorian power of a Brunnhilde. Serjan had it all. She hurled forth the anti-heroine's wrathful tones with a big, steady, full-bodied sound. Verdi's two-octave descents held no terrors for her, and she rode the orchestral crests with a shining top and solid middle and low registers.
Yet the Russian soprano also softened and shaded her voluminous tone to suggest the character's vulnerability, much as she had done in her memorable performances as Lady Macbeth in Muti's concert performances of Verdi's "Macbeth" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra here in 2013. Such was her stamina that she had plenty of voice in reserve to deliver an affecting death scene.
Lucic got off to a slow start, sounding oddly underpowered at his entrance. He appeared to be saving himself for Nabucco's vocally demanding scenes in the final two acts, to which he rose splendidly. The baritone and soprano struck sparks off each other in the Nabucco-Abigaille duet where the Assyrian ruler, now a broken man, implored the woman who had wrested the crown from him to spare his daughter's life. Nabucco's prayer, in which he renounced pagan gods and converted to Judaism, also was beautifully sung.
DeShong was a first-rate Fenena, bringing a warmly appealing voice and supple legato line to a character Verdi gave little to sing, despite her importance to the plot.
Belosselskiy's deep, full, saturnine bass was just what was needed for Zaccaria, a stern Old Testament prophet in voice and bearing.
The smooth-voiced Skorokhodov gave a lyrical accounting of Ismaele's music, although the role really requires a more penetrating sound than he mustered on Saturday.
The supporting roles were well taken by present and past Ryan Center members Laura Wilde (Anna), Stefan Szkafarowsky (High Priest of Baal) and Jesse Donner (Abdallo).
Blurring specifics of time and place, Michael Yeargan's clean-lined sets and Jane Greenwood's color-coded costumes set off the oppressors from the oppressed -- Assyrians in militaristic red robes and inverted-V hats, Hebrews in basic black, accented with white prayer shawls. The handwriting was literally on the walls and projections, using Hebrew lettering and Assyrian cuneiform to whisk the audience from Jerusalem to Babylon. Duane Schuler designed the lighting, Lyric lighting director Chris Maravich the new projections.