Daniele Abbado’s new production of Verdi’s third opera, first shown at La Scala in February, does not shy away from trying to make sense of its disparate emotions. In doing so, however, it somewhat exposes, rather than overcomes, the difficulties in staging the work. The music oscillates between generating moments of high drama and creating scenes of a more meditative nature, and any staging must accommodate both elements while remaining coherent in its own right.
Abbado sets the action broadly in the 1940s, with the Jews wearing clothes from that era. While some images clearly recall the Holocaust, however, this is never overtly referenced because the plot hardly mirrors that horrendous episode. Given the lack of true parallels, this begs the question — why set it then at all? A modern updating does not have to involve the Holocaust, since things did happen to the Jewish people between ancient times and the Third Reich, although admittedly there is no other episode from the modern era that resonates as much in the public consciousness.
The monochrome set consists of a large sandy area around which a perimeter gangway runs, and upon which grey monoliths of various sizes stand. These recall the huge Jewish Memorial in Berlin, and consequently provide reference to the present day as well as the whole issue of memory. Images of the stage from differing angles appear on a backdrop, although these are not filmed live, which allows for some deviation in the effects created.
Surely, however, the backdrop presents the opportunity for more imaginative images of (for example) rivers, landscapes or fires to flood out from behind the stage. The designers may have felt that to insert these would ruin the uniformity, or destroy the magic of the theatre by breaking the ‘second wall’, but the result is that the staging feels stylised rather than overwhelming. In a similar way, the toppling of an idol sees the cleverly constructed statue fall by having each part lifted out of place, which hardly generates the power we would feel from witnessing it shattering to the ground.
Stylisation is, of course, no bad thing, but it is an approach that all often does not lend itself to Verdi’s musical demands. When the Babylonians ransack Jerusalem, for all the drama that should be unleashed, it almost feels as if a ‘park and bark’ approach is being employed. Every singer merely stands still, the principals facing the front, the chorus lined up on either side of the stage facing inwards. Against this, the actors employed to create the action by toppling the monoliths feel rather puny, there being little fusion of singing and drama.
There are many other occasions when the staging is far more successful. For example, Part II when Abigaille sings ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ demands a more contemplative atmosphere, which it proves perfectly suited to generating. It is at it most impressive, however, when it both works with, and enhances, dramatic demands. The iconic ‘Va pensiero’ can all too easily feel overblown and yet here is executed as a model of understatement, the chorus huddled in a mass uttering the immortal words with brilliant enunciation, perfect phrasing and beautifully introverted intensity.
If the staging still leaves something to be desired, the vocal contributions are more uniformly strong. The standout performance comes from Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, whose brilliantly rich upper register combines with immaculate phrasing and breath control, the character’s haughty presence tempered by a notable degree of vulnerability. Just occasionally on opening night, because Monastyrska’s upper register was so strong, when she had to dip into the middle register for just a few notes at a time, these felt underpowered in comparison. This, however, is a minor point and the issue may well be rectified in subsequent performances.
Leo Nucci possesses the vocal class, dramatic grit and sheer mental determination to capture every facet of Nabucco’s character. Rather understandably at the age of seventy his voice sometimes lacks a little in polish and power, but it is a joy to see him execute the role so masterfully; his performance of ‘Dio de guida’ is particularly fine. Vitalij Kowaljow as Zaccaria reveals a bass voice blessed with great depth, security and aesthetic refinement, while Andrea Carè, making his Royal Opera debut as Ismaele, and Marianna Pizzolato as Fenena are similarly excellent.
Conductor Nicola Luisotti creates a harmonious sound with a pleasing combination of rhythmic surety and strong overarching phrasing. The most overwhelming moments can feel as if they only possess ‘formal power’ in that they are delivered entirely correctly, but fail to sweep the listener away. This, however, is reflective — and may even be a direct consequence — of a staging that, although intelligent, can sometimes feel underwhelming.
Plácido Domingo plays Nabucco on 15, 20, 23 and 26 April.
Nabucco will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 18.00 on 8 June 2013.
There will be a delayed live cinema screening of Nabucco with Plácido Domingo in the title role at cinemas worldwide on 29 April 2013. For further details click here.