A second viewing did not alter our opinion of Daniele Abbado’s production of Verdi’s third opera, first seen at the Royal Opera House in March 2013, having previously appeared at La Scala in February. It still makes heavy weather of trying to make sense of the disparate emotions to be found in the opera, and it sometimes feels as if the singers’ attempts to drive the piece forward are in the face of a staging that seems determined to hold things back.
On its first revival, however, the resulting battle is one that the singers undoubtedly win, partly because the cast is so strong and partly because the staging does not always put up so great a resistance. The music of Nabucco oscillates between generating moments of high drama and creating scenes of a more meditative nature, and if the staging does little to aid the former, almost by the same token it proves successful in serving the latter.
Abbado sets the action in the second half of the twentieth century, with the monochrome set consisting of a large sandy area around which a perimeter gangway runs. Grey monoliths of various sizes stand upon the sand, which 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.
The projections, however, feel muted while also diverting attention away from the characters. When Nabucco proclaims himself a god the stage cuts to black as images take the strain of the moment, removing much of the drama that would have materialised by seeing the King actually being struck down. 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.
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 generate the action by toppling the monoliths feel rather puny, there being little fusion of singing and drama.
There are, however, other occasions when the staging is more successful. Part II when Abigaille sings ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ demands a more contemplative atmosphere, which it proves perfectly suited to generating. The moments in which it is right to let one or two characters dominate the proceedings also work well, because in these instances it is good that the visual distractions are kept to a minimum.
As Abigaille, Liudmyla Monastyrska’s voice is possessed of great richness, yet through revealing immense precision and control it can produce a clear, pure line. Her soprano is also equally strong in all registers, something that was not the case when she sang the part three years ago, and the same could be said of the bass of John Relyea who is a deeply impressive Zaccaria. Jamie Barton as Fenena reveals a rich and full mezzo-soprano that is also capable of displaying great sensitivity, while Jean-François Borras excels as Ismaele, replacing Leonardo Capalbo on opening night although he was already booked for several other performances in the run.
As in 2013, Plácido Domingo sings the role of Nabucco for four performances, with Dimitri Platanias covering the remainder. If at the age of 75 his voice lacks the degree of smoothness to be found in it in his heyday as a tenor, in this baritone role it still reveals warmth and expansiveness as well as superlative tone. In both his singing and acting it may be class and presence, rather than necessarily polish, that ultimately win the day, but these are enough to make his performance exceptionally feeling. Far from simply relying on his name, in absolute terms Domingo delivers to a very high standard and, when it comes to technique and execution, still has much to teach the world.
Maurizio Benini’s conducting is for the most part very effective. There are times when it provides the required Verdian drive, but on other occasions it recognises that the score does not merely invite bold, sweeping gestures and consequently demonstrates a keen attention to texture and detail. There are a few other moments when the output is a little too subdued, but overall it gets the balance right, and the rendering of the Overture reminds us how some of the themes are as much grounded in the songs of Venetian gondoliers as in the sound worlds inspired by Donizetti and Rossini.
The chorus is also on excellent form. It is certainly not lacking in power when required, but its pursuit of volume never overshadows its outstanding feature, which is strength of tone. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Va pensiero’ is executed as a model of understatement, but even with the chorus huddled in a mass and virtually motionless, one gains a strong sense of the character of the people who are uttering those immortal words.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.