Giuseppe Verdi - Nabucco
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Jesús López Cobos, Günter Krämer, Željko Lučić, Jinxu Xiahou, Carlos Osuna, Michele Pertusi, Maria Guleghina, Monika Bohinec, Il Hong, Simina Ivan
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 14 May 2015
As it often does with early Verdi works, Nabucco is an opera where situation counts for more than either plot or characterisation. The situation here is one where a people are oppressed, struggling under a tyrannical regime, their beliefs and identity suppressed. That's something that the composer would have been able to identify with far more than Nabucco's Biblical setting and the personal investment consequently comes through here more clearly than in any of Verdi's early works. It's that element that a director has to find to present the work well, but rather more important is the choral nature of Nabucco. Both happily are well covered in the Vienna State Opera production.
It's Verdi's choral writing that contains all the emotions that are at the heart of the work, and Nabucco contains some of Verdi's most memorable melodies, full of noble sentiments of pride for one's homeland and one's people. This takes in questions of love, of family and duty, and Verdi's writing is masterful in how he binds up all these elements into the most stirring arrangements. It's a lot less convincing on individual motivations and characterisation and, for all the drama involved, Nabucco is not terribly strong on pacing and plot.
That's the main problem that a director has to face when presenting this Verdi opera on the stage. Initially, you don't have to worry about it too much, certainly not in the opening scenes of the work. For the first twenty minutes or so the audience isn't going to care a whole lot about the where and the why. You can feel everything you need to know in the beautiful choral arrangements and the oratorio-like expression of the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria. Whether it's well-developed or not, the plot however is far from meaningless, and these are not generic sentiments.
There gravity of the situation is established through a forbidden love affair between Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem, and Fenena, the daughter of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), the King of Babylon and the oppressor of the Israelites, who has sacrilegiously declared himself the one god and forbidden the worship of idols. Family matters come to the fore when Nabucco's other daughter Abigaille, who is also in love with Ismaele, discovers the truth of her origin as the daughter of a slave, and she challenges the authority of Nabucco when through Fenena's influence, he attempts to free the captive Israelite prisoners.
The sentiments between love, family and duty are scarcely comprehensible however and far from credibly developed. The problem is lack of compatibility, the conflation of all these situations of family, duty and romance pushing the whole thing over into melodrama, particularly when some of them (the Fenena-Ismaele-Abgaille love triangle for example) have been inadequately developed. Verdi is ambitiously striving for a 'King Lear' here, but is not equipped to tackle a work of Shakespearean complexity. If Lear continued to elude him, he would do a similar plot much better in Aida in his later years, but in Nabucco at least there is a youthful fire, as well as some degree of sensitivity and intelligence in the scoring.
Director Günter Krämer's handling of the material for the Vienna State Opera production isn't entirely confident either. There's a determination to remove the Biblical context, but not really anything offered in its place. There are no thunderbolts and no idols worshipped; miracles are not divine ones, but carried out by human hands and direct intervention. The struggle is clearly still that of the Jewish people being oppressed (there's no Risorgimento parallel attempted here for example), the production aiming instead for an indeterminate but more recognisable 20th century setting. That sits fairly well as a human drama, but without any real context, the plot doesn't gain any greater credibility.
There is room within for greater credibility to be found within the generous emotional richness of Verdi's score, but although the individual singers all perform rather well, there's no effort either to develop characters and relationships on a surer footing. Željko Lučić replaced an indisposed Plácido Domingo (he hasn't been having a good run of health recently) so we at least have a strong, lyrical, authentic baritone in the role of Nabucco. If the singing is wonderful, Lučić doesn't have the same presence or the critical regal bearing that Domingo might have brought to the role in the seeming absence of character direction and the indeterminate setting.
Maria Guleghina had to take on the role of Abigaille, one of those frankly terrifying roles that Verdi would compose for soprano in his early works (in Oberto, in Attila). If you have a Verdi soprano of real character and stature, such roles can be impressive, but there are few dramatic sopranos of that type around nowadays, and if there's any weakness, it really shows. Guleghina is a little unsteady in pitch and the high notes are not the kindest to the ear, but she's every bit as fiery and formidable as the role demands. It's not enough however to make this Nabucco fly, nor are the rather thankless characterisation and writing for Carlos Osuna's Ismaele, Michele Pertusi Zaccharia or Monika Bohinec's Fenena. Jesús López Cobos however led the orchestra through the score with surprising warmth and sensitivity, and the chorus were outstanding. If you've got that much at least, you've got a fine Nabucco. Expecting anything more from this particular Verdi work is perhaps asking for a little too much.
Nabucco was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Both are conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video