The linking of the names Verdi and Abbado have yielded many fine operatic results over the years, including several outstanding ones. Claudio Abbado has an innate understanding of Verdi and has conducted memorable performances and recordings over a number of decades. However, it wasn’t Claudio in the pit, but his son, Daniele Abbado, in the director’s chair for a new production of Nabucco. Blandness was never something I associated with Abbado Snr’s Verdi, but Abbado Jnr’s is unremittingly dull, at least in this effort. Thankfully, there were ample musical compensations, not least a decibel-busting Abigaille from Liudmyla Monastyrska and a dramatically vivid portrait of the title role by veteran baritone Leo Nucci.
The last time the Babylonian king trod the boards of Covent Garden was in April 1996, as part of the Royal Opera’ s ill-fated attempt to put on all of Verdi’s operas in the years leading up to the centenary of his death. Tim Albery’s production was greeted by a hostile audience response on opening night, which couldn’t have come as a major surprise to the management. Sir Edward Downes, Associate Music Director at the time, had withdrawn as conductor from the production, shared with Welsh National Opera, having witnessed it in Cardiff. Leading lady Julia Varady had also walked. The reaction against Albery and his designer (Antony McDonald) was largely due to the updated setting: Auschwitz, Palestinian terrorists and Kalashnikovs featuring prominently. It was the loudest volley of boos hurled from the House I had ever heard. If the same production was given today, I don’t think the majority of the audience would bat an eyelid, so immunized have we become to directorial whims.
Now, seventeen years on, we’re presented with this new Abbado staging, although it’s not his first Nabucco. I’ve spent a good part of the last few months wading my way through Unitel’s ‘Tutto Verdi’ doorstep boxed set of Blu-rays for IRR. The majority of the operas are from stagings at the Teatro Regio di Parma and are broadly traditional in concept and design. Abbado’s Nabucco then, also featuring Nucci in the title role, very much fitted into this mould: a giant Wailing Wall plus a mixture of traditional and some modern dress. Abbado didn’t seem to have a great deal to say about the opera then. He has even less now.
This co-production with La Scala, Barcelona and Chicago, also using an updated setting, is devoid of ideas. Alison Chitty’s set design is essentially Stonehenge plonked in a sandpit; large blocks of upended concrete representing the temple. When the Babylonians started knocking them over, the risk of a domino effect seemed an enticing prospect. Luca Scarzella’s video designs offer an aerial view of the same scene, plus a few slow-motion pans. The idols built by the Babylonians seem to be made from chicken-wire and resemble museum exhibits on plinths. Abigaille, before her big set piece aria, torches a pile of clothes taken from her hostages. It added colour.
Costumes are 20th century drab, Nabucco a grey businessman attired in a grey business suit. The Hebrews, Zaccaria apart, didn’t look distinctly Jewish (more berets than skullcaps among the chorus). Who are the Jews? Who are the Babylonians? At any given moment, you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference. Was the director trying to downplay their Jewish origins in favour of a more generalized ‘refugee/ displaced people’? I wondered if Abbado was basing his concept on the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine – the building blocks of a new Israel? – but I’m probably giving him too much credit.
In fairness, the production was ‘bland but inoffensive’ and one or two key moments worked well in their simplicity. The chorus was allowed to deliver ‘Va pensiero’ unhindered and Nabucco’s sudden descent into madness after declaring himself god was effective, thanks to use of spotlight (Alesandro Carletti) leaving Nucci scrabbling in a circle of dust. But Nabucco is the operatic equivalent of a biblical epic and any production needs a sense of scale. It doesn't need to be a Zeffirelli blockbuster but something far greater is required than the apathy tossed at it here.
Musically, the state of play was far finer. Nicola Luisotti ‘gets’ early Verdi and conducted a robust account of the score, strong on primary colours. Apart from a couple of trombone smudges, the Overture – a pot-pourri of the opera’s ebullient melodies and rhythms either side of the (in)famous ‘Va pensiero’ theme – cantered along. Generally, tempi seemed well judged, apart from the central section of the Nabucco—Abigaille duet, where singers and conductor seemed to be in conflict, resulting in an oddly restrained speed. The Royal Opera Chorus (reinforced) was on the finest form I’ve heard from it all season (credit to director Renato Balsadonna). Right from the opening ‘Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti’ they created a huge sound, filling the whole House. ‘Va pensiero’, which could possibly have started a little softer, was nevertheless gloriously sung, including a wisp of a pianissimo at the end, magically held past the scores five crotchets (as is the Italian way). Utterly spellbinding.
Claims of ageism can safely be batted away by Covent Garden, employing two baritones in their seventies to share the title role in this run. Well, one baritone and a Domingo (a baritenor?). At least Nucci was given the prima. He’s an experienced Nabucco, with hundreds of performances under his belt and that experience shows both in his nuanced acting and the astute way he is able to husband his resources through the role. The voice is dry now and some phrases are clipped shorter than he would necessarily desire, especially in the long lines of his prayer ‘Dio di Giuda’, but his sense of Verdian style could still teach younger baritones a thing or two. His portrayal of Nabucco as a shuffling, doddery old codger was also dramatically convincing.
From the start, I feared that Monastyrska would just offer us volume as Abigaille. Having heard her at close range (Stalls Circle) and up in the gods, hers is a sound fully capable of exploding eardrums in every corner of the House, but decibels seemed (initially) to be her prime concern, often to the detriment of ensemble balance. However, she demonstrated that there is far more to her armoury than a thrilling top. Once she reached her Part II aria, ‘Anch’io dischiuso’, she dared to explore a lower dynamic, resulting in as delicate an account as you could wish to hear, while she has agility aplenty for the vocal pyrotechnics Verdi throws her way in the cabaletta. We had a Russian soprano the last time Nabucco was here (Nina Rautio); the Ukrainian Monastyrska’s Abigaille is several degrees better. It’s a pity her acting repertoire remains limited to a flounce and a nostril flare. Vocally, she’s head and shoulders above other dramatic sopranos attempting this killer role today.
Her voice is not without its problems. The two octave drop in the word ‘sdegno’ at the end of her recitative illustrates a comparatively hollow lower register, also heard in her cabaletta. Monastyrska’s canny though, and covers this weakness in the second verse of ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ by either taking the higher option or singing softly.
Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow presented a younger than usual Zaccaria, his lighter voice still sounding noble, although there was an unfortunate breath slap bang in the middle of the final phrase (‘Freno al timor’) in his opening ‘D’Egitto là sui lidi’. His prayer in Part II (‘Tu sul labbro’) was a model of nobility, aided by fine support from the orchestra’s cellos. Andrea Carè, making his Royal Opera debut, has too little to do as Ismaele to make much of an impression, while Marianna Pizzolato offered warm tone in Fenena’s brief aria before the denouement. The High Priest of Baal was graced with Robert Lloyd’s firm bass and Serbian soprano Dusica Biljelic impressed in Anna’s ensemble contributions.
Ultimately, this was a mixed evening at best, with some excellent singing enlivening Abbado’s grey staging. In the operatic merry-go-round of shared co-productions, we gave La Scala the rumbustious Robert Carsen Falstaff. In return we get this. Win some, lose some.
Photographs © Catherine Ashmore
The production continues on 1, 4, 6, 8 April, after which Plácido Domingo takes over the role of Nabucco for a further four performances on 15, 20, 23, 26 April.