My mad summer of opera, Part 2: Nabucco

Verdi, the Shakespeare of operatic composers, wrote 37 operas (counting second – and, in some cases, third – versions of some of his works), and like Shakespeare the playwright, it took him about ten attempts to achieve the maximum artistic quality (with Macbeth, no less). Nabucco is the attempt number three, and of the somewhat regularly performed works, it is one of the weaker ones, known primarily for one “number”, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. Someone described its plot as “something happened twenty years ago, and they are still singing about it”; it is essentially Old Testament history with some vague King Lear references thrown in – though it has also been interpreted as symbolic of Italy’s fight for independence in the mid-19th century, and Va, pensiero has been used as a sort of unofficial national anthem of Italy.

The character of Nabucco is a composite of several historical figures, mainly of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II who conquered Jerusalem in 597BC and who suffered from regular bouts of madness, and of Cyrus the Great, who in turn conquered Babylon 539BC and consequently freed the Israelites and rebuilt the temple. While both of these historical figures feature in the Old Testament, they didn’t convert to Judaism (nor did it exist yet in the form we think of as Judaism) – Nebuchadnezzar would have worshipped Marduk, the main deity of Babylonia, and there’s no historical evidence of Cyrus’ religion at all. Nebuchadnezzar in his madness believed himself a wild animal, and not god:

Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake.

In the opera, Nabucco has two daughters, Abigaille and Fenena. The two daughters are both in love Ismaele, who is the nephew of the King of Jerusalem; Ismaele loves Fenena and refuses to give her up even after Abigaille promises that she’ll help the Israelites in return. She wows revenge. The Israelites intend to use Fenena as leverage, but Ismaele intervenes on her behalf, and is condemned as a traitor. Nabucco makes Fenena his regent, while Abigaille discovers that she’s not really his daughter. Fenena converts to Judaism, and Nabucco goes insane, declaring himself not just king but god, demanding that the Babylonians abandon their god Bal (irl Marduk) and worship him instead. As he denies Yahweh, he is struck to the ground by an invisible force, and his crown falls off. Abigaille takes it, and declares herself the ruler of Babylonia. Abigaille sentences both the Israelites and Fenena to death. She then discusses her parentage with Nabucco, while the Hebrew slaves dream of freedom. When Nabucco sees Fenena in chains, he prays to the god of Israel, promising to free the Israelites and rebuilt the temple, and is cured from his madness. He strikes down the idol representing Bal, and frees the Israelites and Fenena. Abigaille poisons herself, and in her dying breath begs Fenena to forgive her.

8613282830_3500a8c6c1_bThe problem with Nabucco is that it’s boring. The plot, as it plays out, is pretty dull, and the music has few highlights. To cover for the dullness of the opera itself, many directors and production designers tend to go absolutely nuts with production values, going for all out period costumes and sets worthy of British Museum. The ROH production by Daniele Abbado (son of Claudio) sits firmly at the other end of the spectrum – it’s mostly grey and minimalistic, and the 1930s fashions and the design of what looks like gravestones is supposed to draw a parallel between the oppression of the Israelites by Babylonians and the Warsaw Ghetto. It almost but not quite works – the parallel necessarily falls apart when Abigaille seizes the throne and the opera slips into her and Nabucco wafting about her true parentage. Abbado’s staging is also sort of half-baked – as everyone wears the same greys and blues, it’s impossible to distinguish between the two sides of the conflict, or indeed between locations or passing time. I couldn’t help but to think that for example by a simple addition of yellow stars to the clothes of the Israelites, the concept would have already improved hugely. I also found the video screen, typically used to add another angle (literally) to the action on stage, distractive and unnecessary. The only striking visual was the fire effect in Act 2 – Abigaille torches the ruins of the temple while swearing wholesale revenge.

8613282580_7696c86e9c_bIn the ROH, the role of Nabucco is shared in this run by Placido Domingo (for whom this production was, I believe, developed) and the Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias; I saw a performance with Platanias, so I won’t comment on Domingo. Abigaille is sung in all but two performances by Liudmyla Monastyrska, Fenena by Jamie Barton and Zacharia by John Relyea. The cast is solid – Platanias was vocally absolutely effortless if not very exciting, while Relyea managed to be both. Barton’s voice was smaller than I had expected, but she was vocally beautifully consistent and in her Act 4 aria offered the one bit of the sort of musical magic that the performance otherwise lacked. At least on Saturday it was Monastyrska who let the side down – her voice is huge, but she wasn’t quite in command of it, the sound being uneven in quality and the pianissimos forced (in the final scene she was barely audible). She also left out whole runs of coloratura in the first act. I’m going give her the benefit of doubt and think that she was having an off day, and that at her best she can be powerful and exciting. Benini’s conducting was solid and academically flawless, but perhaps lacking in the sort of passion that would have ignited the whole show – understandable enough, as this is an opera it is almost impossible to be passionate about.

Nabucco has four performances left; there are total of seven tickets left. Nabucco production photos from the ROH.


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