Opera Holland Park

Holland Park, 5 June 2007 4 stars


Last night's new production of Verdi's Nabucco signified the dawning of a new era for Opera Holland Park. After years of performing under the same canopy in their open air theatre in Kensington, the company has finally acquired a completely new performing space.

The seats are ten times more comfortable than before, with an extra six inches of legroom and arm rests; there is a new, larger canopy, which to my ears has improved the acoustic as well as allowing space for an extra two hundred seats (some of which only cost a tenner); and glorious new bars make the entire experience even more relaxing.

So, under the sponsorship of Korn/Ferry International, Opera Holland Park remains one of the most exciting summer arts venues in the capital.

As it happens, the opening production of Nabucco is just as ambitious as the new performing facilities. Given his track record, it was hardly a surprise to discover that the young director John Fulljames has updated the opera, to the Second World War this time. There are both positive and negative ramifications to the transformation.

I thought the opening scene was visually very beautiful, with the chorus of Jewish refugees wearing 1940s overcoats and hats and carrying suitcases, an ingenious and highly effective connection between persecuted Jews in early Biblical times and those in mid-twentieth century, war-stricken Europe. A circus theme pervades the production: Nabucco is the ringmaster and his soldiers are disguised as acrobats and clowns; later, when Abigaille seizes his crown, she then becomes the new ringmaster (ringmistress?) and wears his costume, a masculine image for a character whose personality is decidedly hard (which perhaps also explains why she enters dressed like an oversized Calamity Jane in the first scene, though it was hardly the most flattering garb).

Personally, I don't think that Verdi uses much banal music in this opera - unlike Macbeth and I masnadieri, where the choruses of evil characters are deliberately represented by 'the jocular macabre' in music. But certainly the festivity of the score meant that the circus setting was appropriate, and the sight of the Hebrew Slaves dressed in clown costumes - which were foreign to them - and trapped in a cage literally like circus animals was hugely effective. Clever, too, to have a visual representation of fire in the first Part in deference to the Biblical inscription in Verdi's score ('Behold I will give this city unto Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire'). And the appearance of a noose in the final scene was a suitably suicidal image for the context of Abigaille's self-imposed death.

Yet other aspects didn't work so well for me. They may have looked cute, but I found it utterly jarring to have a line of schoolgirls (also dressed in traveling clothes) parading onto the stage at the start of each Part and reciting the Biblical quotations specified in the libretto - and why did they read them in English, when the opera was sung in Italian? Opera may not be a realistic art form, but it must have a logic of its own. Sometimes, it felt like the director didn't believe in the characters and had instead created caricatures, which occasionally undermined their psychological complexities (especially with the garish makeup of Nabucco, Abigaille and Fenena), and I don't know why Fenena was dressed a little like a ballerina. Most importantly of all, though, was the big scene in the concertato of the Act Two finale, when Nabucco is struck down by an act of God for declaiming that he is himself God. In its original ancient Biblical setting this can be quite gripping, and it tallies with the atmosphere of the Old Testament. But in circus garb and a twentieth-century setting, it was unbelievable and underwhelming.

Still, these problems were not too serious and the musical performance was very credible indeed. Sometimes he under-projected, but David Wakeham's lyrical voice was perfect for the opera's big moments, particularly the tortured father-putative-daughter duet (Abigaille has been brought up to believe she is Nabucco's daughter but it turns out she is just the offspring of a slave) in Part Three. Abigaille is one of the most taxing roles in the repertoire, one which has not only a massively wide tessitura (range) - going down to a low B flat and up to a high C - but is full of tricky ornaments and trills as well. Maria Pollicina threw herself into this difficult part with gusto, and even if the results weren't always perfect, there was such power, verve and passion about her performance that it hardly mattered.

As Fenena, Kristina Hammarström had the silliest costume in the production and perhaps in consequence of it, never really managed to project much personality (though her part is slightly underdeveloped in any case). Her singing was good, however, especially when duetting with tenor Andrew Rees as Ismaele. Rees also suffered from having only a small part to play, but he made a great impression in Part One with his elegant phrasing and Italianate tone (a natural Welsh tenor if ever there was one). Paolo Pecchioli gave some of the most stylistically convincing singing of the evening as Zaccaria, and the other parts were generally taken with competence.

The starring role of Nabucco is the chorus, and here the company excelled. Rousing from first to last, they captured a true ensemble spirit. With the exception of a slightly slow performance of the prophecy in Part Three, conductor Brad Cohen conveyed the character of the opera - with its stirring nationalistic anthems contrasted with religious supplications to be saved - to perfection. Speeds were sensible, the City of London Sinfonia gave of its all (if occasionally overwhelming the singers), and the instrumental soloists (especially the flautist and cellist) added to a strong team effort.

In all, a resounding start to the new season at Holland Park - and a great baptism for the new theatre.

By Dominic McHugh