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Reviews

18 Jun 2016

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

 

But, Domingo is sharing the role with Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, and on this occasion the latter proved himself a stylish Verdian, with a voice that can rove from heroic to suave, from ringing to whispered, and a dramatic presence equal to the task of representing a King who is both crazed tyrant and tender father.

Platanias’s blazing baritone is even across the range and beautifully coloured. Its sureness and consistency, and his confident musicianship, offers him dramatic freedom; powerfully built, whether vicious destroyer or vulnerable patriarch, he commands the stage. At his first entry, Platanias’s King is both dismissively imperious and disturbingly unstable: when he snatches the crown and declares himself King and God of the Babylonians, his repeated assertions of his own divinity (‘Non son più re, son dio’) signal his impending insanity. He has both the tragic grandeur of Othello and the paranoid delusion of Lear.

Subsequently, when Nabucco pleads for Fenena’s life (‘Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto’) he becomes a Rigoletto - the role in which Platanias made his debut at Covent Garden in 2012 - a desperate father suffering the loss of the one thing in the world that he loves with selfless honesty. In the final Act, miraculously restored to health and reason - his prayers to the God of Judah answered - Platanias recovered his regal rectitude, leading the final chorus with stentorian power and persuasiveness.

In the pit, Maurizio Benini is reliable and brings the vigour of the young Verdi’s score to the fore. The details of the orchestral accompaniments are clearly heard, but they support the voices and never out-shine them. Benini exercises a tight grip and - from my view in the Amphitheatre - seemed at times to have more eyes, ears and arms than is humanly possible, cueing and guiding all and sundry almost hyperactively during the Act 1 choral finale, furiously flinging the pages of the score while never once glancing down. This was a solid rather than a stirring performance, though, from the ROH Orchestra. There was some dodgy tuning from the trombones at the start of the overture, which fortunately settled when the chorale was later reprised, and the sheer brassiness of the score didn’t quite make the mark it should.

Verdi’s said of the opera with which his artistic career really took off, ‘though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star’. He might have added that the star shone brightest over ‘Va Pensiero’: operatic myth has it that at the first rehearsal the La Scala stagehands shouted their approval, reinforcing their endorsement with a drumbeat of feet and tools upon the floor and sets. It’s certainly rousing stuff and the ROH Chorus didn’t disappoint. ‘Fly, my thoughts, on gilded wings; fly to rest on hills and mounts’, cry the Hebrew slaves, and the Chorus really did make their prayer take flight, soft-voiced beginnings swelling to urgent, warm waves of sound, then fading to a magical pianissimo, following which the air seemed to echo with the spirit of the hymn.

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska was a fiery, feverish Abigaille, as power-hungry as Lady Macbeth and sharing all the latter’s coldness of heart, utterly unmoved as she was by Nabucco’s pleas to spare Fenena’s life. Monastyrska exuded self-confidence and self-conviction in ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ (I already ascend the seat of the golden throne), unhesitatingly seizing the crown when it fell from Nabucco’s head. But her scorching fury was countered by moments of quiet beauty. Framed by a semi-circle of fire, in ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ she reflected with bitterness and pathos on her present alienation and happy past, fading to a fragile but expertly controlled pianissimo that hinted at a woman heart’s beneath the mask of magisterial haughtiness.

Monastyrska’s powerful dramatic soprano can hit a note at top or bottom bang on and with astonishing steeliness. But, the sound was sometimes a little raw, there was a tendency to stray sharp-wards, and the coloratura was messy. But, if the characterisation lacked nuance, the vocal diversity was satisfying compensation.

The other roles are inevitable overshadowed by the central father-daughter pair, but American mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, making her debut at Convent Garden, and Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo added a welcome touch of lyricism as the ‘star-crossed’ beloveds, Fenena and Ismaele. Barton in particular used her big voice with considerable expressivity, gliding easily and with sumptuousness through the lyrical phrases.

As the High Priest Zaccaria, Canadian bass John Relyea also phrased expressively but he didn’t quite have the vocal authority to conjure the spiritual gravitas that would be necessary to convince the despairing Israelites to trust in their God, who will destroy Babylon. Relyea’s contemplative solo with wistful cello accompaniment was sensitively sung, and played, though.

Alison Chitty’s designs seek to establish a connection between biblical banishment and 20th-century oppression, specifically the Nazi persecution of the Jews; and, the modern business suits by implication also suggest the miseries of present-day mass exile. The colour scheme is monochrome - unalleviated grey - whether we are in the Judaean temple or the Babylonian gardens. And, while the ROH Chorus gives voice to diverse emotions, from terror and torment to fortitude and faith, it’s not always easy to distinguish Israelite from Babylonian. With a nod to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the sandpit-stage is strewn with statuesque stone plinths representing the Jerusalem Temple; in Alessandro Carletti’s half-light they evoke the eerie strangeness of a de Chirico public square when first viewed, and subsequently they become stumbling blocks to meaningful stage movement. Though there is some attractive and thoughtful blocking of the Chorus, the back-wall video projections of Luca Scarzella are no substitute for genuine dramatic choreography.

A lot of thought has gone into the visual design; but a neat ‘picture’ doesn’t necessarily result in genuine, gripping drama. Whatever its political suggestiveness, Verdi’s opera is essentially about human emotions - love and hatred - of Shakespearean dimension. And Abbado’s production would benefit from a bit more melodrama and a bit less modern-day migrant misery.

Claire Seymour


Nabucco - Dimitri Platanias, Zaccaria - John Relyea, Abigaille - Liudmyla Monastyrska, Ismaele - Leonardo Capalbo, Fenena - Jamie Barton, Anna - Vlada Borovko, Abdallo - Samuel Sakker, High Priest of Baal - David Shipley; Director - Daniele Abbado, Associate director - Boris Stetka, Conductor - Maurizio Benini, Designer - Alison Chitty, Lighting designer - Alessandro Carletti, Video designer - Luca Scarzella, Movement - Simona Bucci, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 15th July 2016.

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