Nabucco

Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Temistocle Solera
Ellen Kent and Opera and Ballet International
Sunderland Empire

Nabucco

Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera. Oberto, the first, had a respectable 13 performances, but the second, Un Giorno di Regno, a comedy, had been a massive flop. Nabucco, however, was a big hit, being performed 57 times at La Scala in the autumn season of 1842 after premièring in March of that year. In it he presents us with a fully-formed Verdi opera; after two false starts he really did hit the ground running.

Set in 586 BC in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and in the Palace of King Nabucco and the Hanging Gardens in Babylon, featuring conflict not only between Judea and Babylon, but also between Jehovah and Baal, the story is on an epic scale. There’s also conflict between Fenena and Abigaille, the daughters of the King, an attempt at overthrowing him, his descent into madness, the almost-execution of the High Priest of the Jews Zaccaria, a love story between a Jew (Ismaele) and a Babylonian (Princess Fenena) and their almost-execution. There are priests and prophets, courtiers and soldiers, a king and two princesses—and not forgetting contemporary reference: Verdi was a great supporter of the Risorgimento, the campaign for the unification of Italy, and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Va, pensiero, summed up that longing for a real homeland and, in fact, became a powerful symbol for the movement.

The music, too, is all we expect from the composer: tuneful, swelling and powerful. And if the whole thing’s a tad melodramatic, so what? It simply sweeps us along.

It’s typical Ellen Kent fare, too—the big, impressive solid-looking sets; the myriad costumes; the swirling crowds of chorus members and extras—and she takes full advantage in this production, just as her singers take full advantage of all the possibilities of Verdi’s music.

Olga Perrier is a magnificent Abigaille, filling the stage with her presence as she fills the auditorium with her voice, and mezzo Zarui Vardanean provides a perfect contrast as Fenena. Fighting Perrier as to who is the most charismatic on stage is bass Vadym Chernihovskyi as the Jewish High Priest Zaccaria, whose performance, full of gravitas, belies his youth. The flexibility of Iurie Gisca’s rich baritone lends itself equally to the proud conquering warrior king and the broken madman of act 3.

As with the previous night’s La Bohème, Kent’s production is firmly and unapologetically traditional and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it does seem strange to ignore the advances in acting that have come about on the opera stage in the last couple of decades, especially in terms of the chorus. Whilst eyes raised to heaven and arms held up may express fear or misery, or arms stretched forward may suggest pleading or the right arm, fist clenched, waving in the air, may suggest anger in a static tableau, continuing thus when the chorus is in movement simply does not work but just looks odd. And isn’t it time we saw the last of the “stagger slowly forwards to suggest being under the stress of great emotion” à la Placido Domingo? Nowadays it looks like a send-up.

That apart, though, this is a great production, with glorious music gloriously played and sung. In 40-odd years of watching opera this is the first time I have seen Nabucco. I’m not sure why—it’s just turned out that way—but what joys I have missed!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan