Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ABIGAILLE and Her Sisters

Who’s the most kickass warrior woman in all opera? While the “Ride of the Valkyries” and Wagner’s other tunes for Brünnhilde and her sisters are some of opera’s most popular music, don't think that the ladies of Italian opera are all wimps and pushovers. Earlier this season at Seattle Opera, Puccini’s Tosca gave Scarpia a memorable kiss with a very sharp dinner knife; and last season we celebrated Donizetti’s extremely unladylike Daughter of the Regiment. But for really hardcore warrior women in Italian operas, you need to listen to early Verdi.

We’re about to present Verdi’s first unbelievably great opera, Nabucco. The diva plays Abigaille, who’s really a piece of work. She makes an impressive entrance in the opera’s first scene disguised as an Assyrian soldier, leading a commando team in to sack the Temple of Jerusalem. Later, she goes mad with jealousy when the tenor rejects her and falls for her sister; beserk with rage when she discovers that she’s illegitimate and that her ‘father’ intends to disown her; then gets completely drunk on power and ambition, before self-destructing. Rare among Verdi’s operas, Nabucco has a happy ending—everyone is relieved, at the end, when Abigaille dies!

Costume design for Abigaille © Ginette Grenier

The vocal demands of this fearsome role are so extreme, the soprano who sang it at the first performances retired from singing shortly thereafter. (She also moved in with Giuseppe Verdi and eventually married him!) In our 50+ years, Seattle Opera has never before presented Nabucco; Speight Jenkins decided to program it, several years ago, because he was so impressed with the Abigaille of Mary Elizabeth Williams, a graduate of our Young Artists Program and one of our favorite singers.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca with Philip Horst as Scarpia
Elise Bakketun, photo

Verdi never again wrote such a voice-shredding role as Abigaille, although he did create a couple of other fantastically killer soprano roles. Four years after the premiere of Nabucco, Verdi wrote Attila, which Seattle Opera presented in 2012. Ana Lucrecia Garcia sang Odabella, the fire-breathing warrior woman who defends Italy from the invading armies of Attila the Hun:

Odabella concludes that opera by chopping off Attila’s head with the sword of her slain father, making Attila another of those rare Verdi happy endings. Verdi immediately followed Attila with Macbeth, another opera about a brutal tyrant and a very scary woman, only this time they’re in cahoots. When Seattle Opera last presented Macbeth, Andrea Gruber sang Lady Macbeth. Here she is, in her entrance aria, crying out Verdi-style “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood.”

It doesn’t end well for Lady Macbeth, of course (another happy ending?!). Verdi went on to create many other wonderful female characters, including the warlike Joan of Arc, the vengeful Azucena, and the gleefully sadistic Merry Wives of Windsor. But in terms of blazingly difficult coloratura, women who want to burn you to ashes with their laser-voices, there aren’t any roles quite like his Lady Macbeth, Odabella, and Abigaille.

Mary Elizabeth Williams sings Abigaille’s aria, posted by her agency

If you're really big on warrior women, there will be a free screening of the movie Hero in Volunteer Park this Friday, 7/17, at 9 pm. Don't miss the gorgeous battle between Ziyi Zhang and Maggie Cheung!

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