Nabucco: Royal Opera, 30th March 2013

E-mail Print PDF

The linking of the names 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 Sir Edward Downes, Associate Music Director at the time, had withdrawn as conductor from the production, shared with Welsh National Opera, having witnessed it in Cardiff.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 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.


Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

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.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 31 March 2013 15:01 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter