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Leo Nucci as Nabucco [Photo © ROH / Catherine Ashmore]
31 Mar 2013

Nabucco, Royal Opera House, London

“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti, Il popol di Giuda di lutto s’ammanti!”. Verdi’s Nabucco at the Royal Opera House respected the spirit of the opera.

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco

Click here for cast and production information

Above: Leo Nucci as Nabucco

Photos © ROH / Catherine Ashmore


The people of Judah are in mourning. The Overture is heard against a simple backdrop, focusing attention on the music, and not on the “false idols” of decorative frippery.

In this time of crisis, the people concentrate on the fundamentals of their religion. In this production, we concentrate on the fundamentals of the opera: on Verdi, and on his music. We listen to the orchestra, contemplating what the Temple means . When the chorus gathers and bursts into song, the impact is explosive.

NABUCCO-2587ashm_0939.gifLiudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille

This production, a joint venture between the Royal Opera House and Teatro alla Scala Milan, is strikingly perceptive in musical terms. This staging takes its cue from the invisible images in the orchestration. Daniele Abbado, the director, observes how Verdi contrasts large form against detail. The people of Judah worship a single, austere God, not multiple false idols. The director, Daniele Abbado, observes how Verdi builds the concept into his orchestration. Just as solo instruments are heard at critical moments in the drama, .individual voices stand clear against the background of massed chorus,. This contrast runs throughout the opera. Abbado’s staging reflects musical form : densely concentrated choruses, principals weaving in and out of the mass. When the crowd parts, and Leo Nucci’s Nabucco emerges, the effect is humbling. The King of the Babylonians is supposed to be all-powerful, but the God of Judah strikes him down. Nabucco isn’t divine, but human.

Leo Nucci has been singing Nabucco for decades. It is a privilege to hear him sing it again in this musically-informed production, where we can concentrate on his true artistry. He’s no longer young, but neither is Nabucco. Nucci brings out the depth of personality in the role. Babylon is a violent kingdom, and Nabucco sanctions savagery. It’s statecraft, after all. He plays a political game of public bluff, placing the crown on his head to assert authority. Nucci is small of stature, but his voice commands authority. Wisely, in this staging, he’s costumed in ordinary clothes, stressing the private side of his character, highlighting his misery and his love for his daughter. Nucci can create the role through his voice, and Abbado, who respects the drama in the music, lets him do so. When Nucci sings “una lagrima spuntò” he suggests that the madness is the first stage in a journey towards redemption, which culminates in the superb Act Four arias.

Forceful, impressive performances from Marianna Pizzolato and Ludmyla Monastryrska as Fenena and Abigaille respectively. The women represent dual personality, which Verdi emphasizes in his showpiece writing for the parts. The drama is in the music, the stage directions in the score fairly circumspect. Vitalij Kowalijow sang Zaccaria with great intensity. His High Priest is a force to be reckoned with, inspired as he is by his profound faith. Andrea Caré sang Ismaele. Robert Lloyd sang the High Priest of Baal. Two singers from the ROH Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Dušica Bijelic and David Butt Philip sang Anna and Abdallo. Young as they are, they have great promise, justifying the investment that’s being put into developing them.

NABUCCO-2587ashm_0361.gifMariana Pizzolato as Fenena

Nabucco, though, is nothing without the choruses. As always, the Royal Opera House choruses, directed by Renato Balsadonna were excellent. Because they weren’t required to flaff about “acting”, we could cherish their singing. “Va, Pensiaro” was staged so simply that we could listen to the way the voices blended like instruments in an orchestra. Pure, clean light shone from above, truly “ove olezzano tepide e molli, l’aure dolci”. Much effort went into getting balances and positions right. These choruses, and the orchestral playing around them illustrated the meaning of this opera.. The gods of Babylon are hollow structures that cannot endure. The Hebrews survive together because they have higher, nobler ideals.

Verdi’s writing is so inherently dramatic that in some ways, the plot is just a frame for a powerful expression of spiritual values. In this case, the religion is Judaism, but the plight of the Hebrews would have had relevance to the Italy in which Verdi lived, fractured as it was by faction and foreign rule. Abbado’s Nabucco is well informed, true to the wider context of Verdi’s music and ideas.

This Nabucco won’t please audiences who need to follow graven images. There isn’t much bloodthirsty violence, and some details are hard to follow. But that’s all the more reason to appreciate what Abbado and conductor Nicola Luisotti are aiming at : a staging based on the music itself. Even the colours in the staging reflect the subtlety in the orchestration. We don’t see black and white but gradations of shades within the spectrum. Far too often, productions are slammed because some people resent a director having an opinion other than their own. But there is no such thing as non-interpretation in performance. Even when we read a score, we are “interpreting” the way the notes relate to each other, and making unconscious decisions about meaning. Sometimes productions are extremely interventionist but popular because they fit assumptions shaped by convention. Such is the hold false gods have on us. All the more reason, I think, we need to appreciate productions like this which highlight the music and its inherent drama, and connect us to the composer and the ideals he believed in.

Anne Ozorio

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