Verdi’s Nabucco is best known for the moving Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, Va pensiero, which has become almost an alternative Italian national anthem. There is a lot more to it than that, however, as amply demonstrated in the new production at the ENO.
The ins and outs of the plot are complex, and one’s understanding is not helped in the first act by positioning Nabucco (better known to us as Nebuchadnezzar) and his two daughters in the very heart of the Jewish Temple which he is supposed to be besieging. That quibble aside, the production is superb, and awash with resonant references.
The now familiar scaffolding at the Coliseum is used to great effect to seat almost the entire orchestra (and this being Verdi, it’s a big orchestra) on stage on raked platforms.
The image conjured up is of the Jewish orchestra in the ‘model’ concentration camp of Terezin, subject of a Nazi propaganda film (all the musicians were killed a couple of weeks later). Rows of shoes at the front of the stage are similarly chilling. This production is not just about Jewish oppression, however – there is a universal message that all religious fanaticism is dangerous, represented here not only by the followers of Baal but also by the High Priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria.
Nabucco himself is powerful as sung by Bruno Caproni (making his ENO debut) and there are many other fine performances. Bass Alastair Miles is superb as Zaccaria, especially in prayer accompanied by a solo cello – perhaps the most moving moment in the opera. The trickiest part is that of Abigaille. Spurned by the Hebrew prince Ismaele (who loves her sister) and seriously irritated by the discovery that she is not Nabucco’s daughter but that of a slave, she is encouraged by the High Priest of Baal to seize control of Babylon when Nabucco goes mad.
American Lauren Flanigan as Abigaille was a little rocky at the start (rather too much sliding around the notes for my taste) but really came into her own as her power grew, both politically and vocally. It must be a bitch of a part to sing, but the madder she became the better she was (she’d probably make a great Lucia). An impressive British debut. Richard Angas made a welcome return to ENO as the High Priest of Baal – we’ve missed his sepulchral tones – and John Daszak was a fine Ismaele. Michael Lloyd had the task of bringing together a fragmented orchestra, including various bands offstage, and created a rich and wonderful sound. And the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was pretty wonderful, too.
Performances are virtually sold out before Christmas, but try for seats when it returns in January while there’s still time.