A few hundred meters from where the Bible says Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple, the Babylonian king took the stage on Thursday night and did it again, setting fire to a massive metal Jewish star as a stand-in for the holy site.
The First Temple’s destruction was part of the Israeli Opera’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, which was held in Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool, with music by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yuval Zorn. Sung in Italian, the performance was translated with subtitles into Hebrew and English.
The audience was a mix of young and old — parents with babies, grandparents with grandchildren — religious Jews and secular, where smatterings of Russian, English and French could be heard among the Hebrew.
Loosely based on the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco — full title, Nabucodonosor– is told in four parts, beginning with the ruler’s conquest of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews.
The next three sections continue back in Babylon, where the king declares himself a deity and is immediately stricken with madness by God. In his absence, his daughter Abigaille, adopted from slaves, takes power and seeks to kill the exiled Jews, including her sister — Nabucco’s biological daughter, Fenena, who converts to Judaism — out of jealousy for Fenena’s relationship with Ismaele, the nephew of the king of Jerusalem, out of scorn for her status as Nabucco’s true heir and out of devotion to the Babylon god of Ba’al, whose high priest encourages the massacre.
Before the genocide begins, the exiled Jews — led by High Priest Zaccaria — sing the opera’s best known number: “Va, pensiero,” also known as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.” Nabucco, who has at this point been imprisoned by the rancorous Abigaille, then recognizes the supremacy of God and is healed of his madness. Taking a sword in his hand, he interrupts Fenena’s execution and wrests back control of his kingdom. Abigaille learns the err of her ways, drinks poison and dies. The Jews are saved — huzzah! — and Zaccaria declares Nabucco a true servant of the Lord.
The performance to a packed house on Thursday night in the outdoor venue just outside the Old City of Jerusalem took on a surreal character, as it described the destruction of the city that was clearly visible from our seats.
In “Va, pensiero,” the exiled Jews sang, “Go, thought, on wings of gold; go settle upon the slopes and the hills, where, soft and mild, the sweet airs of our native land smell fragrant!” amid the actual slopes and hills of our native land, where honeysuckle and other blooming flowers perfumed the evening breeze. More than a few audience members — the descendants of those exiled Hebrews — sang along with the cast, driving home the fuzziness of the art/life divide.
It was no wonder that the greatest applause of the show came after the Jewish chorus sang, “Yes, the shameful fetters shall be broken, the courage of Judah is rousing already!”
Abigaille, played by Ira Bertman, was by far the most captivating character of the show. Dressed in costumes of blood red, black and gold and with makeup transforming her into a cross between The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Frank-N-Furter, the Latvian-born soprano literally stood out from the rest of the cast, which was garbed in more muted tones.
The eponymous Babylonian king may have been the opera’s protagonist, but it was Abigaille who had the more interesting arc as the relatable villain. Initially just jealous of the relationship between her love Ismaele and her sister Fenena, Abigaille launches her full plot to take over the kingdom only after learning that Nabucco had lied to her for her entire life, allowing her to think she was a true-born royal when she was in fact adopted from slaves. But even at the peak of her ire, Abigaille longs to love and empathize again.
“I, too, once opened my heart to happiness! Everything around me I heard speak of holy love; I wept at others’ tears, suffered at others’ pain; ah! to that lost enchantment who will return me one day?” she sings, immediately after laying out her plans.
After drinking poison off-stage, Abigaille dies, hoping for that salvation, asking the Jews, “You have said, oh people: ‘God lifts up the afflicted.'”
At the end of the show, Bertman received the lion’s share of applause from the audience, who were apparently willing to overlook her character’s attempts to murder their ancestors.