Un opera in maschera: vocally, chorally and orchestrally this Covent Garden Nabucco is a triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Nabucco: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Daniel Oren (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 20.12.2021. (CC)

The Royal Opera’s Nabucco © Bill Cooper

Director – Daniele Abbado
Associate director – Boris Stetka
Designer – Alison Chitty
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti
Video designer – Luca Scarzella
Movement – Simona Bucci
Chorus master – William Spaulding

Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) – Amartuvshin Enkhbat
Abigaille – Liudmyla Monastyrska
Zaccaria – Alexander Vinogradov
Fenena – Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Ismaele – Najmiddin Mavlyanov
High Priest of Baal – Blaise Malaba
Anna – April Koyejo-Audiger
Abdallo – Andrés Presno

Usually, when Oliver Mears, Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, arrives in front of the curtain prior to a performance, it is to deliver last-minute bad news about a cast member. Not here: the announcement was that the chorus would that evening be masked, a reaction to the latest guidelines regarding the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus (the lunchtime concert that day had already been cancelled, as have the next two performances of Nabucco on December 23 and 28). What was surprising perhaps was the audience reaction to the mask issue – boos far outweighed applause. In the end, the chorus sang magnificently, full force despite the mask situation. Onstage social distancing was hardly a thing, particularly in the final act and its bunched-together performance of ‘Va, pensiero’, but perhaps that has to do with bubbles and the suchlike. We do indeed live in interesting times.

There was much to celebrate about the performance itself, though. I reported on Daniele Abbado’s production back in 2013 (review click here), when the conductor was Nicola Luisotti. Here it was Daniel Oren, a hugely experienced conductor of this repertoire, who marshalled his forces superbly. I see a performance conducted by Oren impressed my colleague in Barcelona in 2015 (review here). I can echo comments about Oren’s enthusiastic conducting style (including a remarkable ‘upward downbeat’ in some of the choruses – go figure!), but the orchestra and singers clearly love him. Most impressive of all was the way – what in lesser hands can appear as – stock Verdi orchestral patterns become viscerally alive under Oren since it is as if he truly believes, and rightly, that this dramma lirico is not a note too long. And indeed, lyricism was at its heart, melodies long, legato and if not luxurious certainly extended; ensembles were well balanced and often supremely beautiful. The brass at the opening set the stall for the entire performance: carefully balanced, creamy, impeccably judged. Throughout the evening, only the very rare and slight string scrappiness acted as a very small fly in a vast pool of ointment.

As to Daniele Abbado’s production, how a close seat can change one’s perspective! (I imagine a filmed representation might add yet further insight). In 2013 my seat was in the Amphitheatre pretty much as far away as one can get before watching from the actual roof, and it all looked like several shades of grey, and not in a stimulating way. Up close it is more involving, the contrasts of fire (real fire) made visceral. One even appreciates the contrasts of stage textures more (sand basically), while the huge Pagan God-Wicker Man feels more threatening (and, indeed, spiritually empty).

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Fenena), Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Ismaele), Liudmyla Monastyrska (Abigaille) © Bill Cooper

Back in 2013, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille was the ‘star of the evening’; much less so here, where the ear naturally gravitated towards the Fenella of Vasilisa Berzhanskaya. Monastyrska was at her finest when singing quietly in her second act ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’, but the quieter moments only accounted for a small proportion of her singing time, unfortunately her big aria in Act I (from ‘Guerrieri, è preso il Tempio!’) threatened to veer out of control. The two female leads were as chalk and cheese. The real discovery of the evening was Berzhanskaya, a Russian mezzo whose star is very much in the ascendent – and rightly so. Fresh from singing Purcell’s Dido in Novosibirsk (Siberia), Berzhanskaya is the real deal. Her stage presence is perfect: no egotistic superstar this, more someone who was born for the stage and is clearly absolutely at home there. Although she has become linked to Rossini roles, she is clearly a very special Verdian (Fenena is only one of two Verdi roles in her public repertoire so far. the other being La traviata’s Flora Bervoix at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin). Her voice is rich yet simultaneously pure – there is no extraneous vibrato to distract from the laser-like drama of her performance. It would be fascinating to hear how her voice works against Anna Netrebko’s later in the run (in the event this comes to fruition), but at least here there was no confusing their contributions in ensembles. Berzhanskaya is one to watch, for sure.

Of course, there is Nabucco himself, here Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat, who reprises the role for the Deutsche Oper in May next year. He clearly understands this role well and it is entering his bloodstream. He has a clear vision from start to end, his ‘madness’ brilliantly done, his final act ‘Son pur queste mie membra’ gripping (and perfectly prepared by Oren’s introduction, the orchestra itself holding sonic fire).

The Jewish prophet Zaccaria, Alexander Vinogradov, seemed to warm into the role during his ‘D’Egitto là sui lid’ but once there his control was most impressive; Ukrainian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov offered a strong Ismaele. Good to see Blaise Malaba again, confirming as the High Priest of Baal the dramatic and vocal strength he showed in the recent Verdi Macbeth (review here); April Koyejo-Audiger, also in that Macbeth, shone even brighter here as Anna (Zaccaria’s sister), where one could better feel how she can command the stage.

Vocally, this was an exciting tableau of raw talent gelling onstage; orchestrally and chorally, it was a triumph.

Colin Clarke

Nabucco is available to watch on ROH Stream for £16 from 7.30pm GMT on Thursday 20 January 2022 until 11.59pm GMT on Saturday 19 February 2022.

Leave a Comment