One of my favorite sounds — the orchestra tuning their instruments before a performance — heightened my anticipation of a fantastic opening night at the opera. You could hear the audience listening in delight as the curtain lifted to reveal the orchestra center stage playing a spectacular overture.
The 2015-16 season at Seattle Opera marks Aidan Lang’s first full solo year in his tenure as general director after taking over for Speight Jenkins. Fittingly, Lang is starting the season with an epic opera that’s never before been performed by the company, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.”
For this production, the orchestra was taken out of the pit and configured on stage. Closing the pit almost created a Shakespearean thrust stage that stage director François Racine said Verdi would have appreciated. This placed the singers about 25 feet closer to the audience, allowing them to contend with Verdi’s vocal acrobatics without having to sing through the wall of sound created by the orchestra and providing a more intimate experience for the audience.
The orchestra being onstage is revolutionary for Seattle Opera and is sure to get a variety of responses. My feeling is that the vertical dimension of sound from the orchestra’s music swelling and swirling up from the pit gets lost with the orchestra placed onstage. However, the stylistic value and added novelty in this particular instance is worth the compromise.
Another artistic risk: Stylistic projections were used to portray ancient Babylon and its Hanging Gardens as well as the emotional content of each scene.
Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams was dazzling in her role as Abigaille. Williams’ virtuosic singing, acting, and unapologetic passion makes for a truly captivating performance.
Internationally acclaimed recipient of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave an excellent performance, as did her tenor, Russell Thomas, who played Ismaele. For me, their romantic connection, although tender, took a back seat to the magical sonic juxtaposition of Williams’ and Bartons’ upper voices in contrast to Thomas’ tenor in the first act. This speaks as much to casting and musicianship as it does to Verdi’s composition. Baritone Gordon Hawkins brought a nuanced understanding to the emotionality of his title role as Nabucco, but Williams and Barton stole the show.
Maestro Carlo Montanaro is probably the most athletic conductor I’ve ever seen. With incredible physicality, he continuously pushed his orchestra to new depths and heights of drama despite it being opening night.
The spectacular 52-person chorus stepped out from behind the orchestra to the front of the stage at the end of the third act to deliver an evocative “Va, pensiero.” Christian Van Horn’s subsequent aria of hope as Zaccaria gave me the chills.
I enthusiastically recommend this production of “Nabucco” for its brilliant staging and musicality. Seattle Opera succeeds in giving this early and rarely performed Verdi piece the stylistic edge it needs to draw a wide audience and infuse a sense of freshness into this classic Italian opera, while maintaining its political grit and the religious, metaphysical themes present throughout.
Regular tickets for “Nabucco” start at $25. There are also $20 rush tickets for students and seniors. For $15, you can purchase standing room tickets, but it isn’t possible to see the English translations above the stage from the standing room section at the back of the orchestra seating. You can also hear “Nabucco” live and hosted by Aiden Lang on KING FM on Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m. “Nabucco” runs through Aug. 22 at McCaw Hall.
How to attend an opera
If you’ve never been to an opera, here are a few tips to help you attend for the first time. For the most part, these tips and guidelines can be generalized to other live Western classical music performances including ballets, symphonies, and musicals, with the exception of the sections entitled “Yelling” and “Applause.”
What to wear
Though there will be people in floor-length dresses and tuxedos, many will dress casually, and it’s perfectly common for folks to go to an opera at the spur of the moment in their jeans. That gives you a spectrum of clothing options between jeans and black tie. Express yourself. My bottom-line style advice for attending an opera is to dress for comfort and confidence.
Arrive on time
You won’t (or shouldn’t) be seated if you show up late to an opera. Instead, you might be directed to a small area in the lobby where you can watch the live performance on a television until you are allowed to take your seat during an intermission. This rule also applies if you come back late from an intermission.
I’m not talking about the R&B singer. Smile and make friends with your usher, presuming you aren’t holding up the line to be seated. Ask them about the opera’s running time, how long intermission is, and what they think of the show.
Operas are performed in the original language of the libretto. If you do not speak that language, there are oftentimes superscript translations above the stage you can read in real time. This is a somewhat recent development, so check with your opera house for confirmation. The supertitles make attending an opera much more approachable than ever before. If you are attending the Seattle Opera, you can thank Jonathan Dean for the supertitles, which will be displayed even if the libretto is in English.
Applaud between arias when the performer has stopped singing and the music is silent. This does not apply to other forms of classical music. In these forms, you should not clap between movements, only at the very end of a performance. If you are uncertain, follow the lead of the other audience members.
It’s helpful to know that you can order food and beverages before the opera starts to enjoy during the intermission. Your food and beverages will be waiting for you at the start of the break so you don’t have to wait in line. Listen for the warning bell that tells you when there are only seven minutes left before the opera resumes and go back to your seat.
There might be yelling, much more yelling than you would expect if you’ve never been to an opera before. The audience members will yell, “Bravo!” at the end of excellent performances. During poor performances, performers might be booed or hissed at by audience members. It can be a very lively experience.
If you’re seated near the front of the opera house, you have an added responsibility to be intentional about when you give your standing ovation because it creates a cascade effect.
The aforementioned tips will give you some serious street cred with longtime opera goers and may help you feel much more comfortable in the opera environment.
Some of these guidelines may seem like rules to attending an opera. Rather, these are some of the things you can do as an audience member to silently express the utmost respect for this incredible art form and navigate the opera like you’ve been attending it for years.
Reach contributing writer Mia T. Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MiaTVogel