Chorus Inject Colour into Monochrome Nabucco

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Nabucco: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Nicola Luisotti (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 30.3.2013 (CC)

Nabucco: Leo Nucci
Abigaille: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Fenena: Marianna Pizzolato
Zaccaria: Vitalij Kovaljow
Ismaele: Andrea Caré
High Priest of Baal: Robert Lloyd
Abdallo: David Butt Philip
Anna: Dušica Bijelić

Director: Daniele Abbado
Designs: Alison Chitty
Lighting Design: Alessandro Carletti
Video Designs: Luca Scarzella

This production of Nabucco, a co-production with La Scala, the Liceu and the Lyric Opera Chicago has already been reviewed in its Milan incarnation by Jose Irurzun. The director is Daniele Abbado (son of Claudio), who is here working at the Royal Opera for the first time.

The all-consuming greyness of the production is a problem. Grey slabs initially dominate the stage (headstones?); later, a sand pit takes centre stage. Clothing is similarly on the grey side, with suits for some. Black and white video projections, courtesy of Luca Sarzella, fail to add to the ongoing drama, or add depth to our understanding. A Wicker Man icon refers, surely to pagan gods. Even if the filmic parallel is not intended, the hollow figure surely refers to the insubstantial versus the more sturdy Hebrew belief system, at least in Verdi’s view? Initially intriguing, the onstage symbols are simply not powerful enough to carry the message; simply put, they do not match the astonishing dramatic power of Verdi’s music. In the case of projected lines of fire at the back of the stage, they don’t seem to add anything.

Musically, that this is only Verdi’s third opera is amazing. No concessions need be made in terms of dramatic effectiveness. The title role is shared between Leo Nucci and Plácido Domingo (the latter takes over on April 15). In October 2011 at Covent Garden, I raved about Nucci’s Germont pere; here, he was still impressive, if not quite on the same level. Dramatic opportunities abound in Nabucco, not least in his mad scene. Spotlit lighting was effective as he melted down mentally, but there was the nagging suspicion that Nucci was not totally inside the part, at least in the earlier half of the evening.

In terms of the soloists, the real star of this evening was Ukrainian dramatic soprano Liudmyla Monastyrka’s Abigaille. She sang the role for the first time at Scala in February; her voice is shot through with steel. True, subtlety is not her major priority here, but she has great presence and it offers an imposing assumption of the part. Her ability to negotiate Verdi’s cruel leaps is a major advantage, her dramatic strength truly imposing as she entered, all in black, in the third part. It was here, too, that Nucci’s assumption rose to new heights. He entered here, à la tramp, his pleas for compassion for a distraught father most affecting.

Vitalij Kovaljow was a fine, strong Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews. His Part I aria, “D’Egitto là sui lidi” was finely sculpted. Tenor Andrea Caré’s Ismaele was well, but not notably, sung or acted, while mezzo Marianna Pizzolato made a fine fist, dramatically and musically, of Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter.

But perhaps Monastyrska was not the real star of the evening when the performance is taken in toto. That accolade should go to the Royal Opera Chorus. The “Va pensiero” was sung beautifully, the chorus illuminated from above, and shaped most sensitively by Luisotti. But in fact they were magnificent throughout, perfectly prepared and impeccably balanced in their representation of an oppressed, displaced race. Their finest moment of the evening, surely, was the Part IV prayer, “Immenso Jehova”, an astonishing show of vocal force that it was simply a privilege to be in its presence.

The whole was steered somewhat variably by Nicola Luisotti, who will conduct all performances on the run. Ensemble between chorus and orchestra was generally good but revealed the odd wobbly moment; the orchestra sounded neither inspired nor bored, but somewhere in between. Luisotti’s gestures are rather approximate – some might say windmill-like at times (I had a fine view from my Amphitheatre seat) and although orchestral ensemble was generally good, it could have been that notch tighter.

Nabucco will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 8 at 6pm; there will be a worldwide delayed screening on Monday April 29.

Colin Clarke