Splendid Playing and Singing Transcend Misjudged Nabucco Production

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Nabucco (Company Premiere): Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Welsh National Operas, conductor, Xian Zhang, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 31.5.2014 (GPu)

Nabucco –David Kempster
Abigaille – Mary Elizabeth Williams
Fenena –  Justina Gringyte
Ismaele – Robin Lyn Evans
Zaccaria – Kevin Short
Anna – Rosie Hay
High Priest – James Platt
Abdallo – Joe Roche

Conductor – Xian Zhang
Director – Rudolf Frey
Set Designer – Ben Baur
Costume Designers – Silke Willrett and Mark Weeger
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell
Choreographer – Beate Vollack
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris

This was the second opera in WNO’s current season to be presented in a co-production with Stuttgart Opera. In the case of the first opera, Moses und Aron, the production (in its austere untheatricality) divided opinions (I found it interesting and conceived in response to important dimensions of the work). In the present case, I have yet to hear or read any voices raised in praise of Rudolf Frey’s production. And I am unable to find much to praise either. The effect of the production at times verged more on subversion than representation of the work as written and composed. Stage-business was frequently a distraction (and must surely have been so for the soloists at times); there wasn’t, so far as I could discern, a coherent underlying vision of a coherent ‘world’ in which the work’s narrative and ideas made sense. Although I neither expected nor wanted either archaeologically inspired sets or grand processions, I think one should expect (and get) from an opera production (as from the production of a play), a sense of a theatrically consistent social world in which events, characters and their choices and feelings, achieve  fair degree of plausibility.

In more than a few respects, this production was, unfortunately, somewhat risible. When the conquering Nabucco first entered, looking like the stock South American dictator of popular imagination (with admixtures of Jimmy Saville, Billy Connolly and Sadam Hussein), there was a good deal of effortfully stifled laughter in the seats around me. When he later drew a pistol and fired a shot upwards into the stage roof, precipitating a shower of tinselly silver stars (why?), some members of the audience could no longer stifle their laughter and one wondered whether the pantomime season had not perhaps arrived early. Beyond laughter, however,  was the scene in which the excellent Mary Elizabeth Williams was obliged to sing one of Abigaille’s complex arias (the role is a notoriously difficult one musically) surrounded by cavorting bodyguards / soldiers, with their faces covered by balaclavas and with pot-plants (I kid you not) on their heads. Such staging shows a lack of interest in, perhaps even a disrespect for, Verdi’s music and for the work’s dramatic power. It would be pointless to enumerate more such absurdities. In a sense the best comment I heard came from my wife – who had never before seen or heard Nabucco – as we left the theatre at the end of the evening (several friends left before the end of the evening): “After a while I was mesmerised by the power of the music and forgot about the nonsense”. Indeed, power in abundance the work has, in its music and in its ‘myth’. Although traditional ideas that the patriotic choruses of Nabucco, specially ‘Va, pensiero’ were barely concealed statements of Italian nationalistic aspirations, and were received as such by early audiences, have been shown to be false by Roger Parker (in his ‘Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati’. The Verdian Patriotic Chorus in the 1840s, 1997), it is surely true that in a broader sense a work such as Nabucco, both in the libretto by Temistocle Solera and in Verdi’s music, did resonate with something in the air at the time; with that strong sense of nationalism that was part of the Romantic movement and with Romanticism’s pursuit of the ideal of liberty. “Romantics from Uppsala to Madrid, and from Dublin to Moscow, shared a number of common bêtes noires. They revolted against shallow, narrow conventionality … Prophetic visions of the overthrow of Babylon haunted the imagination of William Blake and his contemporaries” (Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, Romanticism in National Context, 1988).

The (wilful) obtuseness of the production was particularly unfortunate, insofar as musically the performance was top-class. The Abigaille of Mary Elizabeth Williams was vocally authoritative and psychologically and dramatically persuasive (within the constraints of the production). David Kempster’s Nabucco was well sung and in the scenes of his loss of power and madness was genuinely moving. Justina Gringyte as Fenena and Robin Lyn Evans as Ismaele both sang very decently, without doing much to give their roles much in weight or depth of characterisation. The lesser roles were all performed adequately or more than adequately, so that vocally there was no noticeable weak link. Chinese conductor Xian Zhang displayed a firm and perceptive command of the idiom of this early(ish) Verdi score and the orchestra responded well to her direction. Previous incarnations of the WNO Chorus have distinguished themselves famously in productions of Nabucco, and the present Chorus admirably lived up to the high standards set by their predecessors. Perhaps there is something about being based in Wales that allows (encourages?) a particular responsiveness to the ‘nationalism’ of Verdi’s writing for Chorus in Nabucco? Whatever the reason, it would be hard to imagine superior performances to those given to the music for Chorus on this occasion (even if the WNO Chorus were obliged, much of the time, to sing while performing a kind of frantic hand-jive which made them look like a group of demented tic-tac men and women).

So, this was a musically valuable and memorable performance, which, in spite of rather than because of directorial choices, communicated much of Nabucco’s very considerable enduring power.

Glyn Pursglove

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