By the Rivers of Babylon – Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ at the WMC

13 Jun

Nabucco

About a quarter of the way into Nabucco, I realised that director Rupert Frey has a fondness for wonkily-timed theatrical gunshots. Back last year, he gave us his take on Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which – contrary to what the history books will tell you – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester drew a handgun and shot himself in the stomach. Here, in Verdi’s 1841 opera, we had the titular king (better known as Nebuchadnezzar II) pulling a gun and firing it into the sky, thus unleashing a torrential downpour of gold glitter.

If Maria Stuarda – and, indeed, all of WNO’s Tudor trilogy – were cavalier with history, Nabucco is positively reckless. For one thing, there’s the set… or lack of one. Act 1, which Wikipedia assures me is set in Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, happens against a plain black backdrop, with only a smidgen of dry ice accompanying the chorus and main characters. While the orchestra romp their way through a typically bombastic overture, the chorus stumble onto the stage looking shell-shocked and bewildered. Dressed in modern clothing, they look like the survivors of a terror attack, and we soon learn that their city is being invaded by the armies of Nabucco.

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Well, I say we learn this… You see, unless you’re already familiar with the story of Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar, it’s all a bit confusing. When Nabucco’s daughter, Abigaille, and a crack team of Babylonian soldiers enter the temple in disguise, they do so dressed much like everyone else, except they’re wearing glittery blindfolds. Well… I thought they were blindfolds, but I guess, seeing as the libretto later makes mention of them being in disguise, they were meant to be masks, and… oh… well, you see what I’m getting at.

Frey’s take on Nabucco is packed full of symbolism, I was just a bit lost as to what many of those symbols meant for much of the opera. It took me until Act 3 to realise glitter and gold represented Babylon and the worship of the god Baal (here referred to as Bel), and there was some symbolic connection between the Hebrews and black chairs, but I still haven’t got the foggiest what it was.

Eventually, I decided to surrender myself to it all, regardless of whether I was following the plot, and that was when I began to enjoy it, because there is so much to enjoy here… even if it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The production’s brightest star is without a doubt Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille. Oh, my word… Where do I even start? Her vocal range is jaw-dropping, and she plays the part with tons of panache, sassing her way through the aria (Salgo già del trono aurato – I ascend the bloodstained golden thronein which she plots to seize the Babylonian crown from her half-mad father. Whether the device of a Vegas-style backdrop, and Abigaille planting back feathers in the crowns of her balaclava-wearing chorus/backing dancers works – or, indeed, means a great deal – I couldn’t say; but bloody hell, it was fun.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

The opera’s central plot – that of the madness of Nabucco and the power struggle between the pagan cult of Baal and Judaism (represented by Abigaille and her Jewish half-sister Fenena) – is just as bewildering. One moment, Nabucco is presented as a Gadafi-like military leader, the next as an almost Peter Stringfellow-like lothario. Actually… scratch that. If David Kempster’s Nabucco reminded me of anyone, it was of a certain former X Factor contestant.

I'll leave you to work out which one I mean.

I’ll leave you to work out which one I mean.

Kevin Short’s high priest, Zaccaria, has all the stentorian boom the part demands, but is lumbered with some distracting Vogue-esque dance moves, and while Robyn Lyn Evans sings the part of Ismaele beautifully, it’s one of those thankless, dreary roles that even the most spellbinding production would fail to make work entirely.

WNO’s Nabucco is paired, this season, with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, under the loose theme of “Faith”. It’s interesting that there are so few operas based on biblical stories, though perhaps no coincidence, given that opera’s infancy coincides with those of humanism, the renaissance and the enlightenment. Art as a whole, in painting, literature and sculpture, was moving into more secular territory. This allowed composers and librettists to serve up the meat and potatoes of opera – love stories, revenge tragedies and comedies (or opera buffe), that are still easily understood today. You don’t need a degree in theology to get your head around Tosca or Don Giovanni.

The problem for a modern, even more secular audience, when it comes to an opera such as Nabucco, is that the story itself is increasingly remote. Verdi’s librettist, Temistocle Solera, saw no need for scene-setting exposition – their pious audience would surely be familiar with the story already. In 2014, however, the average audience member (if I’m anything to go by) needs a little help, a few visual cues to tell us what’s going on, and there’s little chance of that when a production opts for such oblique imagery.

Ultimately, WNO’s Nabucco left me thrilled and baffled in equal measure. The orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, were on top form, and – as with Moses und Aron – the company’s chorus was outstanding, delivering a spine-tingling rendition of the opera’s most famous number, Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate (better known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). The artistic choices were often more curious than thought-provoking, but still allowed for some genuinely striking imagery, and I really can’t repeat this enough, but Mary Elizabeth Williams is incredible.

Nabucco is being performed at the WMC again on Saturday June 14th, at the Birmingham Hippodrome from the 19th-21st, and at Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna, Finland from July 29th until August 2nd.

 

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