According to Verdi’s autobiographical notes, written decades after the event, the impresario Merelli forced the libretto of Nabucco into Verdi’s hand and later that evening, when placing it on the table, it opened to the immortal lines of ‘Va, pensiero’. Seeing these lines, Verdi was inspired and agreed to write the opera. I do wonder though, if he (or any other composer for that matter) knew what travesties would be perpetrated by modern directors on their compositions, whether he would have bothered writing anything to begin with.
Nabucco, re-introduced to the UK by Welsh National Opera back in 1952 in a production by John Moody, returns to the company for the first time since Tim Albery’s production in 1995. I fear this production will receive the same short shrift that Albery’s did. The director this time is Rudolf Frey, who brought us last season’s Maria Stuarda and comes from the Regie factory of Stuttgart, whose creative team has churned out such moribund productions as the Stuttgart/Dresden La Juive last year and the Royal Opera’s ‘controversial’ Rusalka. By controversial, I mean utterly pointless and devoid of meaningful invention. Feel free to edit this assessment to a four letter word in your head. The whole gamut of Regie emotion was displayed from A to B, with apparently no attempt to actually look at the libretto in order to communicate the story. We even had the obligatory black-shirted storm troopers appear in the second half. Clearly no self-respecting Regietheater production is complete without these – vide Bayreuth’s Parsifal and the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Rienzi. During the overture, various chorus members wandered aimlessly across the stage, dropping hankies and rushing from one side of the smoke-filled stage to the other but without any discernable motivation other than possibly the projection on the backdrop of the Biblical quote used by Solera at the start of each part. This rather artificial device was used for each successive part, this the only concession to setting the scene and location.
Much had been made about how this wouldn’t be a big beards, staffs and sandals production à la Cecil B. de Mille, as if this would be a frightfully passé thing to do, but one does wonder why anybody thinks that dressing characters in cheap-looking clothes that seem straight out of an amateur production of Abigail’s Party whilst parading around with glittering faux cabaret dancers is any more relevant or entertaining. Certainly, the way the chorus members were dressed lends a whole new terror to poverty. Despite two costume designers being credited, (Silke Willrett and Marc Weeger), the end result looks as if the cast were sent out to choose their own costumes from a charity shop. There was no attempt to differentiate between Israelite and Assyrian (admittedly, Verdi himself doesn’t seem to be entirely consistent in viewing the invaders as Assyrians or Babylonians), the only hint that the Assyrians might be ‘different’ is that Fenena was dressed in a rather chavtastic pink frock, Nabucco wore military threads and later each of the chorus got to wear a sequined glove in the manner of Michael Jackson.
Then there was choreography, in this instance by Beate Vollack. When you have a chorus apparently being taught the Macarena by their high priest and later a group of vengeful militants reduced to wearing feather dusters on their balaclava covered heads whilst a soprano claims to be ascending a throne covered in blood, you have to take a step back and ask yourself ‘WTF?’.
Set Designer, Ben Baur reduced the ‘set’ to marsh gas and quackery. A largely bare stage to begin with, then a dining table on a dais and a tacky gold curtain covering the backstage area for the second part of the performance stood for the desolated Jerusalem and decadent Babylonian court. If this was a moralistic take on contemporary society’s penchant for idolising media celebrities and reality TV, then its message was too opaque and dully presented for it to be taken on board.
Thankfully I can report that musically, standards were high and had we been spared the awful tedium of a director’s ego this would have been a thoroughly enjoyable performance. The opening brass chorale of the overture was taken at a leisurely pace, the orchestra being conducted for this one performance by Simon Philippo but the tempo picked up for the skittish minor key main theme of the allegro section. What a glorious sound the orchestra of WNO can create! If it seemed unrestrained then it was wonderfully so and the energy was carried over into the hair-raisingly loud and terrifying opening of ‘Gli arredi festivi’. Sadly, throughout the performance, despite the chorus playing such an integral part, they were badly blocked and were very much left to ‘park and bark’. Despite their ill-use, the chorus yet again showed what an asset they are to WNO, singing with passion and fire when required but with sensitivity in equal measure. Though I have never experienced anything to compare to hearing ‘Va, pensiero’ in Trieste many years ago, a performance so rapturously received that it had to be repeated, here the final pianissimo notes were held steadily following a fine delivery of the chorus.
Kevin Short’sZaccaria was well sung, creating an authoritative presence, with a few shaky low notes but ‘Come notte a sol fulgente’ was suitably rousing, even if the participants were hampered by having the learn the hand movements for the Macarena. ‘Vieni, o Levita’ received in hushed appreciation by the audience, the rich sound of his voice beautifully matched by the warm sonority of the cellos that augurs well for the opening of the Guillaume Tell overture later this year.
In the unrewarding roles of Ismaele and Fenena, Robyn Lyn Evans and Justina Gringyte did well, Evans having a sweetly lyrical tone that is well suited for bel canto roles, though the character was portrayed as a slightly mawkish hipster, uncomfortable with the advances of Abigaille in the trio of ‘Io t’amava’ as if he were a 40 year old virgin. Gringyte’s portrayal of the legitimate daughter of Nabucco was passively drawn, being more than happy to be tied up by Zaccaria and apparently ending up as insane as her father, walking away from Ismaele with a blank look on her face, whilst he moved with concern to the body of Abigaille. She made the most of her Act IV prayer as she accepted her impending martyrdom with a pleasing mezzo tone.
Abigaille was taken by Mary Elizabeth Williams and though the character came across as more Big Brother contestant than a she-wolf of Babylon, her performance remained committed to the director’s vision, if unconvincing as a genuine threat to anybody. Her entrance to the bombastic strains of offstage banda was more nightclub diva making her presence felt than proud entrance of a fearsome rival. Bringing a simple girlishness to the Act I trio, which ended on a beautiful held piano note, her top C was a tad pinched and the tumultuous two octave descents in ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ were drowned out by the male chorus but she sang ‘Anch’io dischuiso un giorno’ in a melancholy mode that was a pleasure to listen to. She negotiated the swoops of the Act I stretta with accuracy. However, the concept of the production was distracting and took away any fire from the role, with no fierce malignancy, even in the duet with Nabucco as she turns the table on him, thus rendering him the unwitting accomplice of his daughter’s death. For some peculiar reason, the choice was made to have Abigaille take poison during this moment, even as she revels in her triumph.
As Nabucco, David Kempster took time to make his mark in the role, not having a real solo until ‘Dio di Giuda’, providing a mellow baritone contrasted with the hard conviction of Zaccaria during Act I, yet snarling in rage as he reclaimed his crown at the end of Act II, before being struck down by a vengeful Jehovah. Well, I say vengeful Jehovah but what actually happened was the stage lights went off and he hid under the table. Having apparently suffered a stroke, he held a limp arm close to him during the confrontation with Abigaille, pleading in warm tones to be reunited with Fenena even at the cost of his crown. It was with ‘Dio di Guida’ that he had his moment of glory, returning to sanity in rich voice that made one wish that the singers had been better served by the production.
Despite many fine musical performances from soloists, chorus and orchestra (a star each for singers and orchestra), one can’t help but think that poor Verdi would probably be turning in his grave at this dismal production.
(Photos : via WNO website)