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16 Apr 2013

Plácido Domingo sings Nabucco - Royal Opera House

Plácido Domingo's London debut as Nabucco at the Royal Opera House was received with rapture. Domingo's position in opera is immense. His very presence comes over so well that any performance feels like a historic event. He is a marvel. If Domingo was singing Plácido Domingo rather than Nabucco, it hardly mattered. He delivered the big areas well, and was particularly impressive in the typically Verdian dialogues between father and daughter. Domingo isn't a singer who needs Personenregie. He is simply himself and that's enough.

Giuseppe Verdi : Nabucco

Click here for cast and production information

 

Earlier in the run, the role was taken by Leo Nucci. Domingo and Nucci are almost exactly the same age, but Nucci has been singing Nabucco most of his career. Domingo's voice may be more rounded, but Nucci understand the extremes in the part, and how to express the darker sides of character. Domingo sang Nabucco. Nucci "was" Nabucco, carrying the whole performance by the sheer depth and conviction of his portrayal.

The fire in this performance came from Liudmyla Monastyrska. She an impressively forceful Abigaille on the first night, but as the run has progressed, her approach has developed, and her voice has taken on intense new colours. She isn't the most physically demonstrative of singers, so n amount of direction would animate her stage presence. Instead her reserve becomes part of the characterization. Abigaille isn't lovable. She's ruthless, using power as revenge. Monastyrska uses the fundamental dignity in her voice to create an Abigaille as unyielding as the stone pillars and marble walls around her. When she lights the ring of fire, she gives a glimpse of another Abigaille, made vulnerable by passion. Thus, in the finale, her abject humiliation is truly tragic. When the ensemble stand together and sing, Monastryka makes us feel that Abigaille has found redemption.

This production, directed by Daniele Abbado, has been criticized because it's too modern. But what is Nabucco really about ? The temple has been destroyed, and the people of Judah are taken as captives into foreign exile. As Zaccaria (an excellent Vitalij Kowaljow) remeinds is, it's not the first name the nation has been threatened with annihilation. Moses came out of exile from Egypt. We don't need reminding about the horrors of the 20th century, and Abbado makes no explicit references at all. There's no need to be specific. The bodies that are laid on the ground in Act IV rise again, for they are not dead.

In Nabucco the primary struggle is between the God of Judah and the multiple idols of Babylon. The God of the Jews is so sacred that he's invisible. He is invincible because he is austere and lives in the hearts of his people. This is the absolute crux of the whole story. Gaudy golden idols are false. Men cannot become gods, as Nabucco learns the hard way.

"Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti, Il popol di Giuda di lutto s’ammanti!" In Catholic Italy, religion is a kind of public theatre, hence the performing tradition. But Abbado takes his cue from the true meaning of the opera, and from a source that long predates Christianity. If audiences and critics can't cope with an absence of graven idols, that's their problem. To please such folk, Verdi should have rewritten Nabucco in favour of Baal.

Abbado's visual images are austere. There are suggestions of marble towers, the plain plains of a frozen desert at night, monoliths strewn across the stage suggesting multiple ideas : marble plinths, gravestones, the shards of the shattered temple, relics of civilizations long forgotten. Visual literacy is like emotional intelligence : you have to be sensitive to all nuances. For me the abstraction underlined the spiritual nature of the story. Once the eyes are cleansed of gaudy images, one can focus on the subtlety of this staging. The colours may be muted but carefully observed they reveal delicate gradations of colour : washes of pale green and blue over multiple shades of black, white and grey. This is entirely valid, for the text is full of references to starlight, mists and "tepide e molli l'aure dolci del suolo natal!"

Music moves. Abbado expresses this constant movement in the score obliquely through projections that are shown behind the singers, instead of submerging them in busy stage action. Thus the stately, dignified pulse of the central drama unfolds without fuss. The choruses are very precisely directed, the voices particularly well blended..They move and part several times, reflecting the shifts in balance in the music. Verdi was quite specific about the conquerors appearing in disguise. His music reflects this confusion and anguish. It may not work so well on stage (Verdi was only 30 when he wrote the opera) but Abbado is not to be faulted for respecting the composer's intention.,

This is also an extraordinarily musically-informed production. One of the dirty little secrets of the opera world is that audiences don't really listen to the music. Abbado, whose background is more musical than most, deliberately shifts attention to Verdi's music. The Overture is played against a simple backdrops, so we can focus on how it shifts from theme to theme, highlighted by unobtrusive changes in light and colour. Just as the god of Judah is invisible, Verdi's orchestral writing is abstract, but inherently dramatic. That the Royal Opera House Orchestra plays superbly is a given. For conductor Nicola Luisotti, they rose to even greater heights than usual. Abbado's restraint lets the music shine forth. At last, we are hearing Verdi as symphonist, and as a musician.

Anne Ozorio

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