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Maria Guleghina as Abigaille (Photo by Tabocchini e Gironella)
18 Aug 2008

Lucky star over the Arena

“Stage direction should not follow fashion, for fashion is the sister of death”.

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco

L’Arena di Verona
Performance of 27 July 2008

Above: Maria Guleghina as Abigaille
All photos by Tabocchini e Gironella


This solemn statement, drawing from Italy’s poet laureate Giacomo Leopardi, is ostensibly the key to Denis Krief’s vision of Nabucco, unveiled last year as the inaugural show for the 85th opera season at L’Arena di Verona and now being revived from late June to late August. By signing all alone direction, scenery, costumes and light design, the French-Italian polymath provided a consistent, almost austere, staging; one relying more on the clash of ideas than on traditional melodramatic gestures. Jerusalem and Babylon, two hostile worlds, are summarized by means of abstract symbols facing each other from opposite sides of the stage. On the left, huge pentagons in white metal resembling a library: Jehovah’s Word incorporated in long rows of books. On the right, gilded cylinder slices boldly pointing towards the sky: the tower of Babylon, obviously. As the conquering Assyrian king storms the Temple on horseback — a real horse, Arena-style, and a pretty skittish one at that — all the books abruptly fall from the shelves and tumble down to the ground with an ominous roar. The Temple is then plunged into the dark, with the Jews singing as if behind the bars of a multi-storied penitentiary. No less destitute in their ankle-length grayish overcoats, Assyrian troopers march to and fro along a steep platform stretching between both monuments. Their queer parade-step, an operette-ish caricature of the German Wehrmacht or the Soviet Red Army, conveys a touch of (unintentional?) humor, though.

After a first controversial reception from the popular outdoor audience, this production is now being paid growing success. Pity that, right on the first sold-out night on July 27, a meeting of stagehands called for a strike in support to a fired colleague and pitch-black clouds were amassing over the beautiful town on the green Adige river. “A stormy night at the Arena — past GM Claudio Orazi once told me — amounts to a thrilling experience. Challenging occasional downpours is part of the excitement, as long as they don’t wholly disrupt the performance. A much seldom occurrence, inasmuch we believe that a lucky star shines over the Arena”. Yet at 9.15 p.m., when Daniel Oren raised his baton for the overture, few among the 14,000-odd patrons filling the stone crater to the brink would bet on a happy end. True, this particular production could not suffer much from the desertion of stagehands. The books were not there, and that was nearly all the damage.

Nabucco_Verona_Act3.pngScene from Act III of Nabucco

To make up for it, the acid colors and the gloomy atmosphere of Krief’s lighting, that plunged most of the rear-stage into darkness, were stirred by a continuous battery of natural flashes and rumbles from above. Whether accompanying Nabucco’s acts of blasphemy, the Jews’ hymn to “Immenso Jehovah”, or the fall of the idol of Belo, such serendipitous effects conveyed a grandeur that no human director could afford. Eight minutes past midnight, with the company still bowing in return of applause, a gentle drizzle started falling, turning into a flood as soon as the last opera tourists had climbed their coaches heading to Switzerland, Austria and Germany — an amazingly tactful timing. As to the music itself, a credible title-role was provided by Ambrogio Maestri, equally royal in bodily appearance and breath consumption. His main opponent Zaccaria (Paata Burchuladze) did not yield an inch and triumphed with beautiful legato singing in “Dio di Giuda”. Maria Guleghina, still an awe-inspiring Abigaille, was at her most affecting in her lyrical and repentant moments, particularly in her final “Su me morente, esanime”, while suffering from occasional strain at high-pitched cabalettas, such as “Salgo già sul trono aurato”. Ismaele (Giorgio Casciarri) and Fenena (Eufemia Tufano) sketched an elegant couple of lovers, with uncommon bel canto potential and enough power to be heard above the thunderbolts. The house’s chorus reaped wild applause for its rendering of “Va’ pensiero”, once a battle anthem during Italy’s independence wars against the Austrian empire. That 19th-century tradition lives on, as shown in the customary calls for encore, this time full-heartedly granted by Oren. The mercurial Israeli maestro is a welcome guest here. His nuanced touch is even more praiseworthy given the dimensions of this unique venue; if only he could restrain from humming and roaring into his microphone during the climactic orchestral tutti

Nabucco_Verona_panorama.pngA panoramic view of Nabucco.

Carlo Vitali

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