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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

NabuccoSarasota Opera
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of Mary Poppins and Cherry Docs

The Cast
Photo Courtesy of Sarasota Opera
Sarasota Opera is known as America's house of Verdi. Three short years ago they completed a traversal thirty-plus seasons of every note Verdi is known to have written—every single opera, including several in multiple versions as well as all the other music known. Now the composer reenters the Winter Festival with his third opera and first big hit, Nabucco, telling the fictionalized bible story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

Nabucco is very early in the composer's oeuvre, and his compositional hand is still limited. He had not moved beyond forms that stood the bel canto composers in good stead, every aria followed by a cabaletta, chorus with solo. Act two, scene one is simply a double aria for the soprano. There is a really nice trio for Abigaille, her sister Fenena, and Ishmael before the finale to act one. In two short years, two operas later, Verdi's dramatic abilities had improved greatly with Ernani and its powerful second act which moves from aria to duet to trio to quartet in powerful musical strokes. This is not to suggest that Nabucco is less than an early work from the pen of a soon to be genius. All over the piece are things that presage what its composer would become. The third act chorus for the now enslaved Hebrews, "Va pensiero," became a quasi national anthem for a divided Italy, and even today, a performance in Italy is likely to have most of the audience singing along. The opera may not be among Verdi's masterpieces, but it has its riches and continues to be revived reasonably often.

Verdi is Maestro Victor DeRenzi's passion. Although I have seen him lead performances of operas by other composers, I have memories of indelible performances of other Verdi operas, including both versions of Don Carlos (Italian and French), Aida, and Rigoletto, which he will lead again in the fall. The overture features a superb brass ensemble right at the opening, fine work by the woodwinds throughout, and all night long his orchestra does him proud. He paces this slightly unruly opera well, giving it firm shape.

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille, believed to be the daughter of Nabucco, is interesting casting. All my exposure to this piece has been with a dramatic soprano in this role. I have wondered why, as I listened to them struggle through the coloratura demands of the big aria, "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno," and cabaletta, "Salgo già del trono aurato." Ms. Bard has no such difficulty, singing with assured technique; the dramatic demands of the character are left for the music to delineate. Maria Callas sang this role very early in her career and it is this type of voice, one that can comfortably encompass some of the more dramatic bel canto heroines (Lucrezia Borgia, Norma, Anna Bolena), that I want to hear attempt it, since historically this opera was written only a few years past the operas that host those ladies.

All of the other principal roles are well cast. Stephen Gaertner is imposing in the title role, superb when he finally gets his aria, "Dio di Guida" in act four, as Nabucco returns from insanity and embraces the god of his enemies, the Jewish people. Love is not a central element of this biblical drama, but Lisa Chavez as Fenena, true daughter of Nabucco, and Ben Gulley as Ismaele, nephew of the king of Jerusalem, are both fine in somewhat thankless parts. The part of Zaccaria, high priest of the Jews, went through some changes. A different singer was announced last year, but was replaced by Kevin Short who has given some memorable performances in the past at Sarasota Opera. On the evening I attended, Mr. Short was announced as indisposed and replaced by Christopher Nazarian who acquitted himself nicely, although I suspect that Mr. Short may have brought more to the role.

The chorus, who play a major role in this opera, sound well schooled, providing plenty of rich sound to fill out this opera. Kudos to chorus master Roger L. Bingaman.

Stage director Martha Collins keeps the action clear; only Stephen Gaertner and Rochelle Bard do much beyond traditional opera acting. Scenic designs by Jeffrey W. Dean are lush and evocative, costumes are not credited but coordinated by Howard Tsvi Kaplan fill the stage with color. Ken Yunker's lighting design and Brittany Rappise's hair and make-up designs are also excellent.

The Sarasota Opera production of Verdi's Nabucco is equal to the best work I have seen from this company. What is offered would not be out of place at Chicago Lyric Opera, Santa Fe Opera or Houston Grand Opera.

Nabucco, through March 24, 2019, at Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information call 941-366-8450 or visit

Nabucco: Stephen Gaertner
Abigaille: Rochelle Bard
Fenena: Lisa Chavez
Ismaele: Ben Gulley
Zaccaria: Kevin Short