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The 2015-16 Seattle Opera season is the first in which Aidan Lang, who succeeded Speight Jenkins last Fall, did the programming, and it opened Saturday night with Verdi's "Nabucco." I saw the Sunday matinee (yesterday), in which there were different singers in the three most prominent roles, Weston Hurt as Nabucco, Andreas Bauer as Zaccaria (the High Priest), and Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille, with Bauer and Angeletti making their Seattle Opera and US debuts.

There's been a lot of advance talk about the innovativeness of the staging by Quebec director Francois Racine, aided by Scenery Designer Robert Schaub and Video Designer Robert Bonniol of MODE Studios. It was a testament to their conception that rather than thinking it was innovative, I simply thought it was right.

The action took place on a thrust stage, with the orchestra, in full view of the audience, behind the stage, and the chorus behind the orchestra, until they became characters, not commentators, in "Va pensiero." Temistocle Solera's libretto was based on a 19th century French play, which, according to Jonathan Dean's excellent program essay on the subject, "Verdi's King Lear," had roots in Shakespeare's tragedy. (At the time he wrote "Nabucco," Verdi still had ambitions to create an opera to the actual "King Lear," but that was not to be.) The set allowed Racine to direct the opera as if it took place in a smaller, more intimate setting than full opera stages tend to be. There were no big scenic pieces -- projections took the place of the painted flats of the premiere -- to dwarf the singers, and the proximity helped to fulfill the director's vision to attempt to replicate the greater intimacy between audience and singers in theaters in which "Nabucco" was first staged. (The team did no go as far as leaving the house lights brighter than the stage lights.)

Jamie Barton, recently crowned BBC Singer of the World (Edited to Add: this is wrong: Barton is the penultimate winner from 2013; she won the Tucker Prize in 2015), sang Fenena, the good daughter, as she will in all performances. Her voice is rich -- I look forward to her recital this evening at Benaroya Recital H all -- but she wasn't the biggest voice in the house. Her love interest, Ismaele, who is shunned after allowing her to escape capture, was sung by clarion-voiced tenor Russell Thomas, an alumni of the Seattle Young Artists program, who sang ardently. While they have some very nice music, they aren't the major vocal characters.

The first of those is Zaccaria, and it's clear from Andreas Bauer's big, flexible bass with an easy, clear upper register why he's been cast as Phillip II in "Don Carlo." His debut was a stunner. Equally impressive was soprano Raffaella Angeletti as Abigaille. She looks tiny -- short and slender -- which makes her huge sound that much more surprising. She had the energy of a sprightly Brunnhilde (a la Nina Stemme in the San Francisco Opera production) and the kind of charisma that the ambitious Vitellia ("La clemenza di Tito") and many Handel female throne-seekers have: bad, but you're drawn to them anyway. In "Nabucco," she gets a quiet death scene, which Angeletti sang and interpreted equally well as she had the fireworks in her earlier scenes. A tie for the best debut, and I hope we'll hear both Bauer and Angeletti early and often.

The third major role is the title role. Nabucco enters as an arrogant king, but baritone Weston Hurt, making his role debut, didn't have the same impact as the others, as his voice simply isn't as big, yet he's supposed to be the biggest threat to everyone. Once his character was hit by lightning -- relatively early on -- and he descended into madness and blindness, Hurt hit his stride, with nuanced singing and vocal and physical acting. By the time he regained his throne, I was more than convinced.

Jonathan Dean led the Talk Back, opening with questions and discussion with the attendees until Hurt, the featured speaker, was able to change and get to the Allen Room. Hurt is intelligent and personable, and when a mother asked for advice for her daughter, an aspiring opera student and singer, he gave two pieces of top-notch advice that I've never heard anywhere else: if there's something else you'd be happy doing, do that, and that if he had to do it over, instead of doing a bachelor's in music/voice, he'd have majored in Romance languages with a minor in business and have found a vocal teacher on the side.

The opera will be broadcast this Saturday, August 15, at 7:30pm Pacific time on KING-FM:

http://www.king.org/

Gordon Hawkins will sing Nabucco, Mary Elizabeth Williams will sing Abagaille, and Christian Van Horn as Zaccaria.

There are five more performances. The Bauer/Angeletti/Hurt cast singles Friday, August 14 and Wednesday, August 19. The Hawkins/Williams/Van Horn cast sings Wednesday, August 12, Saturday, August 15, and Saturday, August 22 (closing night). Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas, and in the smaller roles, Karen Early Evans (Anna), Jonathan Silvia (High Priest of Baal), and EricNeuvilke (Abdallo) will sing in all performances.

A should see, if you are in the area and can make it. This is the first production of "Nabucco" in Seattle, and it's not performed that often in North America, at least.

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First to address a huge error of omission from my post above, the Seattle Opera chorus was spectacular. I often wonder how they can get better, and then I see another opera, and it seems like they've surpassed themselves again.

A few words about Jamie Barton's recital last night. I know that the Nordstrom Recital Hall is a much smaller venue than McCaw Hall, but even factoring that in, when she wants to turn up the volume, Barton can and does. At times I could feel the vibration of her voice in my bones. There is nothing like an un-miked voice that can do that.

The program was in three parts, and except for Rachmaninoff's "Spring Waters," it was not familiar rep, which was a pleasure in itself. She opened with three songs by Joaquin Turina, "Cuandro tan hermosa os miro," "Si con mis deseos," and "Al val de Fuente Ovejuna," which she said were done often by sopranos and tenors, and she had them transposed for her voice, which she later said ranged from F/G to C in performance mode. It's rare to hear Spanish language songs in general, particularly outside the Zarzuela phase of Operalia. The second part was five songs by Libby Larsen, "Love after 1950," set to female poets, "Boy's Lips (a blues)" (Rita Dove), "Blonde Men (a torch song)" (Julia Kane), "Beauty Hurts (a honky-tonk)" (Kathryn Daniels, called "Big Sister Says" on Larsen's website), "The Empty Song (a tango)" (Liz Lochhead), and "I Make My Magic (Isadora's Dance)" (Muriel Rukeyser). As the parenthetical title descriptions suggest, there is a stylistic range, and Barton sang in the appropriate style with drama, humor, and clear diction. (When later asked what her favorite language to sing in is, she said "English" and her affinity showed in this set.) The last three songs on the regular program were Rachmaninoff's "Spring Dances" and "I Wait for Thee" from "12 Romances, Op. 14" and what she described as Wagnerian Rachmaninoff, "All Glory to God." She's already sung Fricka in Houston and is learning more roles. She said that Wagner is easier for her to sing than Bellini, when asked to comment on the two composers, and that it lies in the right place in her voice.

She returned with the excellent Beth Kirchhoff, a vocal coach and former Seattle Opera Chorus Master, her piano accompanist, for two encores. The first was well-know to those who've followed her career, and which she sang in the 2007 Met Opera Auditions captured in the documentary "The Audition," the Witch's aria "Hexenlied" from Humperdinck's "Hansel und Gretel." The second was the mezzo's aria from "Adriana Lecouvreur," which she sang with such dramatic arc that it felt like a short film.

We thought that was it -- she had sung two Fenena's in less than 24 hours on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, then an hour+-long recital, with three more Fenena's this week, and she deserved a break -- but she returned and generously participated in a Q&A, first with General Director Aidan Lang and then taking questions from the audience. I never knew she had gone to a small, liberal arts college without an opera program, but I wasn't surprised to learn that she did musical theater in college. She has an easy, natural stage presence, whether singing or speaking, and she has a great sense of humor.

In news: Barton is about to record her first solo CD, which will include songs by Sibelius. (I can't wait to hear that: the Sibelius songs with which I'm familiar should fit her voice like a glove.) She'll make her Royal Opera House debut as Fenena, and I hope Aidan Lang grabs her as much as her schedule will allow.

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Thanks for the broadcast link, Helene, and also for your opera reviews, which I always really enjoy. Going off%20topic.gif , for anyone interested in Fiona Shaw's marvelous production of The Rape of Lucretia, at Glyndebourne, you can see it online through Saturday.

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Thank you for the link, kfw! I'm on borrowed WiFi until Saturday, but I hope I can play it before Saturday, when we're in transit.

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A totally trivial comment, but every time I look at this title, I think it says "Nabisco"

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