Deutsche Oper’s Nabucco is a Triumph

GermanyGermany Verdi, Nabucco: four part opera (1841)  Soloists, Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Andrea Battistoni (conductor), Deutsche Oper Berlin, 8.9.2013. (MC)

Nabucco: Johan Reuter
Ismaele: Yosep Kang
Zaccaria: Vitalij Kowaljow
Abigaille: Anna Smirnova
Fenena: Jana Kurucová
Oberpriestrer des Baal: Marko Mimica
Abadallo: Gideon Poppe
Anna: Hulkar Sabirova


Director: Keith Warner
Set design: Tilo Steffens
Costumes: Julia Muer
Chorus: William Spaulding
Dramaturgie: Jörg Königsdorf

The Deutsche Oper Berlin chose to commemorate Verdi’s 200th anniversary year with the well known opera Nabucco, a new production in Italian by director of international renown Keith Warner. It seems that the company last staged the opera some thirteen years ago with a controversial staging by director Hans Neuenfels. Before that in 1982 the Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin recorded the opera under the baton of Giuseppe Sinopoli for Deutsche Grammophon. The starry cast of performers featured Piero Cappuccilli (Nabucco), Plácido Domingo (Ismaele), Evgeny Nesterenko (Zaccaria) and Ghena Dimitrova (Abigaille).

Verdi openly acknowledged the importance of Nabucco “with this opera it is fair to say that my career began.” This richly rewarding opera, a biblical epic with some of Verdi’s impetuosity of youth, tells the story of the defeat and exile of the Israelites to virtual enslavement by the Babylonians during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco). Verdi originally set the opera around six hundred years BC whilst the Warner production, with some exceptions, looked as if it was set around the start of the Victorian era (around 1841) the same time that Verdi wrote the score. Warner seems to be concentrating on underlining the contrasting cultures of the learned and devoutly religious Israelites and the warmongering and autocratic tendencies of the Babylonians. Importantly Warner’s production was far easier to understand and to follow than Daniele Abbado’s uninspiring and time dragging 2013 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden that featured Plácido Domingo looking uncomfortable in the baritone role of Nabucco despite the sterling efforts of Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille.

The staging and lighting of this new Warner production was remarkably effective. Dominated both at the start and the conclusion was an imposing crimson/orange coloured cone shaped turret that I guess represented the walls of Babylon. Vividly lit against a dark background the turret that became shrouded in mist was hinged to open and closed in the middle. It was operated by a bearded old man who opened it to begin and closed it to conclude the production. A significant stage presence was given to a printing press to represent the Israelites reliance on scripture and a plain rectangular wooden structure that I assumed was a house of prayer.

The Israelite people were led by wild looking high priest Zaccaria played by Swiss-Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow. Dressed in black coat with his tallit, the traditional long white shawl with black stripes on top of Kowaljow’s long hair was placed a traditional black Shtreimel hat. Kowaljow did a fine job in Zaccaria’s part one cabalettaCome notte a sol fulgente’ (‘As night before the shining sun’) displaying decent projection but, in truth, bringing little stage presence to the role.

In their white shirt, black tie and sombre black frock coats the Israelite men looked like a group of funeral directors whilst the womenfolk wore dark grey, ankle length dresses that fitted at the waist with plain white collars. Aside from a few minor diction problems probably caused by the Italian libretto the chorus of the Deutschen Oper rendered the famous and near iconic ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from part three ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’ (‘Fly, thought, on wings of gold’) as movingly as I could imagine.

Danish baritone Johan Reuter as Nabucco sported a pair of waxed black trousers with a curious halved jacket black at one side and tan on the other, his blouse was a matching tan colour. The king’s badge of office was a crown, mask and wavy beard combined into one single gold face piece. Highly convincing in the title role, a renowned emotional roller-coaster, Reuter spent a good deal of time behind his gold crown/mask. From part four I especially enjoyed Nabucco’s prayer ‘Dio di Giuda’ (‘God of Judah’) which was movingly sung, steady and well-focused with a reasonable projection.

For me the highlight of the evening was Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova giving a marvellous portrayal of the thoroughly unpleasant Abigaille who came across as a vamp-like villainess. Supposedly Nabucco’s elder daughter Abigaille went into a near-psychotic rage against the Israelites when discovering that she was one herself. Abigaille’s array of costumes varied from the look of the Disney character Cruella de Vil to Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in the 1980s TV series Dynasty. Smirnova, highly assured as Abigaille in her part two aria ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno (‘I too, once opened’) and the following cabaletta ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ (‘I now ascend the bloodstain seat’), displayed her steady forceful voice, so movingly dramatic. Director Warner’s moderate shock element was a rampant Abigaille grabbing a courtier and making love to him on a pile of red cushions in front of a crowd people.

The role of Fenena the daughter of Nabucco was taken by Slovakian mezzo-soprano Jana Kurucová. Her part four prayer that Fenena sings prior to being killed ‘Oh, dischiuso è il firmamento’(‘Oh, the firmament is opened up’) was sung endearingly by Kurucová with sensitive artistry, however, I did feel that she could have made more of the role coming across in her long pale grey dress as matronly in terms of personality.

Ismaele the only moderately involved king of Jerusalem was sung by South Korean tenor Yosep Kang. Looking anything but royal dressed in a white open necked shirt, black trousers and black riding boots with a black pinstripe waist-coat.

A large set of chairs of the type that could easily sit around a typical domestic dining table was used throughout the staging. At one point Fenena and the Israelite people were stood on them whilst hangman’s nooses dropped down from above to be placed around their necks. It was Nabucco holding up his holy book that caused the nooses to fall from their fixings and become ineffective.

I didn’t see any evidence of the guilty Abigaille having taken poison as in the traditional ending but she was excluded from the Babylonian community as the cone shaped turret representing the walls were pushed closed by the bearded old man and the set darkened. Like many others I was left wondering if the bearded old man represented the Hebrew God.

Andrea Battistoni did an accomplished job with the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin keeping the music flowing with a steady pulse even allowing time for applause when warranted. Enthralling, thought provoking and eminently entertaining Keith Warner’s new production of Nabucco at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was a triumph.

Michael Cookson