What does Nabucco mean for the modern subject? Depending on the production, it’s safe to say that one of three major themes will be highlighted. In the near ubiquitous presence of the chorus, one finds the plight of exile in the face of extreme hardship or political brutality; a struggle for power and loyalty as illustrated by the triangle of strongly defined main characters; and, perhaps this is always a theme due to the opera’s context, (mis-)trust in the unwavering tenacity of faith.
Daniele Abbado’s production--co-produced with La Scala, the Liceu, and the Lyric—is new to the Royal Opera, but it highlights these seminal themes historically by strictly keeping to Verdi’s biblical setting. With most operas, adhering strictly to what the composer has given or “signed off” would be considered traditional or, to put it bluntly, safe because it would guarantee good ticket sales and, let’s not pretend, good reviews. Nabucco is different from most operas, however. It was composed during a groundswell of archeological fervor for the Middle East, when many operas and ballets on the subject were sweeping through Europe, undoubtedly shaping, at least in part, conceptions of the Arab world. The problem with mounting its production these days is not the usually troublesome casting of Abigaille or the training of the chorus, but the opera’s historical distance from the modern audience.
The opera’s themes remain at an interpretive distance--relating to modernity at arm’s length--because of a turgid biblical context, and, lest we forget, one that is largely generalized (Solera’s source was a French play) on the Old Testament. Nebuchadnezzar and the oppression of the Hebrews is an old narrative that should be updated not because it repeats itself in different, modern guises, but for the ripe opportunities for social critique it presents to the modern director. What might make a half-true biblical story couched in religious polemic accompanied by an “uneven” score socially relevant?
Did it not occur to anyone at these four opera houses that perhaps this was a moment to make a political statement? For opera to become suddenly relevant again? After all, is that not what modernism has left artists? A means to be provocative, not only along the well-trodden paths of social and cultural critique but of political critique as well? Think of the quintessential modern example of misdirected faith: George W. Bush’s leadership of America and Iraq. This production premiered at Covent Garden 10 years to the month that the United States invaded. Or, perhaps even more relevant, Assad and displaced Syrians. Perhaps simply updating the costumes past the 1940s would convey the point, no drastic changes needed.
Why Alison Chitty’s costumes were set in this era whilst the rest of the production indicated an abstract landscape (at best) is a mystery. The sets were, despite the missed opportunity, impressive on their own terms. The fire in the second act and creative video backgrounds by Luca Scarzella were clever and dramatically effective additions, but I wonder if Scarzella has seen Complicite’s Master and Margarita (which played at the Barbican the last two years running), a show that used similar video installations much more drastically and far more effectively. Leo Nucci has lost some of his flair and voice since I last heard him perform the role, but, he is still a brilliant Nabucco. He sings with style, acts vivaciously, and consistently commits to Verdi’s music wholeheartedly. Nucci has passion in him yet. His best scene was his “mad moment,” which was also lit effectively by Alessandroa Carletti.
As Abigaille, Liudmyla Monastyrska was show-stopping. With her silky yet penetrative voice and enormous stage presence she is almost perfect for the role,. To be sure, in 2011 she was a great Lady Macbeth but she must sing Abigaille role more often, despite the slight lack of precision in the more florid moments, perhaps most notable in her cabaletta “Salgo già del trono aurato.”
Vitalij Kowalijow, who played Zaccaria, has a smooth and powerful baritone with a masterful level of technique. He opened the opera powerfully with his “D’Egitto là sui lidi,” whilst the extremely well-prepared
Andrea Caré was the weakest of the main characters and was probably a bit too nervous as Ismaele; one looks forward to hearing him again, perhaps in a role that suits his lyrical voice somewhat better. Only slightly more than equally matched with him, however, was Marianna Pizzolato, whose bright but full mezzo colored the role not only with emotion, but with more presence than the role demands.
As usual, Nicola Luisotti was in good form, but the horns in the orchestra had one or two off moments while the strings—and especially the cellos—deserve praise for some very consummate phrasing.
The failure to be socially or politically relevant, to reduce the historical distance between audience and art, rests with Abbado’s production, which carefully insulates and consigns the music and text of Nabucco to abstract or apocryphal history. Of course, this makes enjoyable theatre, but it remains a missed opportunity as art.
Photos: Catherine Ashmore