Ellen Kent, Opera International and the Chisinau National Opera
Grand Opera House, York
According to the souvenir brochure, "Singing has in the past few years become Moldova's main invisible export." This is no exaggeration. Each year the Chisinau National Opera, in conjunction with Ellen Kent and Opera International, spends months on the road bringing grand opera to every nook and cranny of Britain. This refurbished production of one of Verdi's earliest hits now makes a welcome return, although fans of the Andalucian stallion Todo will be disappointed not to see him pulling Nabucco's chariot - the small size of the Grand Opera House stage made this impossible!
The plot is based, very loosely, on the Apocrypha and a French play popular in Italy at the time of the opera's composition. Nabucco was a Babylonian king who destroyed the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, enslaved the Jews and was punished with insanity by the wrathful Jehovah. Operatic enough in itself, one might have thought, but the addition of a romantic subplot - Nabucco's two daughters, wicked Abigaile and heroic Fenena, are in love with the Israelite ambassador Ismaele - was enough to make Nabucco a tremendous success when it premiered in 1842.
There's never a dull moment in this production, although it was obvious that lack of space was a problem. The handsome sets - Assyrian murals, staircases and winged bulls - looked a little cramped in the limited space, and the chorus was hampered by the fact that for much of the time they were confined to a narrow strip at the front of the stage. But the company have a long history of overcoming the setbacks attendant on touring, and a few clumsy moments obviously did nothing to spoil the audience's pleasure.
In common with most opera and ballet productions from the former Soviet Union, Nabucco has a distinctly old-fashioned look. Boris Focsa's direction and Felix Bessenov's designs are very much of the 1960s, the aim being to tell the story as straightforwardly and colourfully as possible. British audiences brought up on more experimental fare may cavil, but there will always be a place for traditional productions - especially when they are as well sung as this Nabucco.
The Chisinau National Opera boasts soloists of truly international calibre. Valeriu Cojocaru (Zaccaria), Petru Racovita (Nabucco) and Tatiana Busuioc (Fenena) would be a credit to any operatic stage, and Galina Bernaz is a sensational Abigaile. The smaller roles are equally impressive and the chorus superb.
I have often wondered if East European companies ever tire of touring an endless round of Verdi, Puccini and the occasional Mozart. During the interval I had the pleasure of speaking to company manager Alexandru Gangurean, who informed me (over a glass of rather nice Moldovan champagne!) that a production of Eugene Onegin may be in the offing if Ellen Kent and Opera International feel it has sufficient box office appeal. Let's hope they say yes - it would be wonderful to see a Russian company perform what must surely be the Russian opera most familiar to British audiences.
At the Grand Opera House, York, until 21st November, then touring to Nottingham, Bournemouth, Grimsby, Manchester, Brighton, Tunbridge Wells and Croydon. Tour ends 7th December
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson