An impassioned, vocally inconsistent 'Nabucco' from Lyric Opera Baltimore

Biblical stories do not typically make great operas, anymore than they make great movies. But Verdi’s first successful work for the stage, “Nabucco,” based more or less on the tale of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian bondage of the Hebrews, comes pretty close.

It’s loaded with urgent situations and grand statements, fueled by vividly colored orchestration. It also boasts Verdi’s most indelible and affecting choral piece, reason enough to keep this opera in the repertoire.

Lyric Opera Baltimore is closing its season with a production of “Nabucco” that captures the work’s passion and sweep, if not all of its musical richness.

On Friday night at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, the strengths started in the pit, where conductor James Meena guided with score with a sure hand and where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra proved a terrific asset, from its blazing brass to its purring cellos.

In the title role, Michael Chioldi offered an exceptionally warm, solid tone and deeply communicative phrasing that got to the heart of Nabucco’s heaven-defying vanity at the opera’s start, his subsequent madness and spiritual awakening.

The baritone, stuck with a beard that suggested a chenille decoration, wasn’t a very nuanced actor, but his stellar singing easily compensated.

As Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews, the bass Oren Gradus sculpted his music stylishly. More tonal weight in places would have been welcome.

Velvety-toned mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo revealed promise as Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, in love with the Hebrew priest Ismaele, a role sung by tenor (and former Ravens player) Ta’u Pupu’a. His large voice lacked finesse and his intonation was unreliable, but the performance had an ardent spark.

There was ardor to spare from soprano Francesca Mondanaro in the opera’s juiciest role, Abigaille, a former slave adopted by, and eager to usurp, Nabucco.

Mondanaro, who seems to have something of a cult following that includes several Baltimore boosters, threw herself totally into the music and certainly left a seismic mark on Friday. There was no mistaking the sheer size of the voice, but no mistaking its unruly nature as well.

Except in the low register, which usually sounded secure and lush, this was hardly a model of vocal technique. Shrillness and ragged edges took quite a toll by evening’s end. Still, the intensity of the soprano’s singing did have its rewards. And, aside from an unwise bit of pillow-kicking, her acting brought out Abigaille’s volatile character tellingly.

For the most part, the chorus rose to the occasion, especially in “Va, pensiero,” the lament of the captive Hebrews (a slightly slower tempo from Meena would have added greatly to its expressive impact). The customary encore of this piece was observed, even though the first time around generated modest applause.

The staging of “Va, pensiero” was accompanied by projections of scenes from Jewish history, ending with the Holocaust. It was an admirable attempt to make this famous part of the opera more relevant and resonant, but it looked a little forced (in the case of the first images shown, cheesy).

Stage director Bernard Uzan, who, with Michael Baumgarten, also designed the projections, kept the action moving along in generally effective fashion.

The final performance of ‘Nabucco’ will be at 3 p.m. Sunday.

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