Friday 1 July 2016

Sorching performances & superb chorus redeem a grey Nabucco

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille in Nabucco © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013
Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille in Nabucco © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013
Verdi Nabucco; Dmitri Platanias, Liudmyla Monastyrska, John Relyea, Jean-Francois Borras, Miriam Treichl, dir: Daniele Abbado, cond: Renato Balsadonna
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fine individual performances and superb choral singing enliven a rather grey production

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille and Dimitri Platanias in the title role of Nabucco (ROH) © Catherine Ashmore
Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille and Dimitri Platanias in the title role
Nabucco © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
The Royal Opera House's recent revival of Daniele Abbado's 2013 production of Verdi's Nabucco was designed to showcase Placido Domingo in the title role, but as is the way of these things Domingo did not sing all the performances, and towards the end of the run there were other changes. We caught the final performance, on 30 June 2016, by which time conductor, Nabucco, Ismaele and Fenena had all changed. We saw Dimitri Platanias as Nabucco, Jean-Francois Borras as Ismaele, John Relyea as Zaccaria, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, Miriam Treichl as Fenena, Renato Balsadonna conducted.

Daniele Abbado's production, with designs by Alison Chitty, loosely updates the piece to the mid-20th century. Nazi persecution of the Jews is evoked, but only loosely and Chitty's sets are quite abstract. She has created a series of striking settings, within which Abbado moves his players in a manner which could be set in any period. The predominant colours are grey and beige, though this may have been exacerbated by the fact the Luca Scarzella's videos on the rear wall were only partially visible from our seats in the Amphitheatre, and for what we could see the colours were profoundly muted.

The biggest problem for us was that there seemed to be little visual differentiation between the Israelites and the Babylonians. With Abbado's preference for having chorus members as observers in scenes where they were not involved, this meant that it was often difficult to tell which group the chorus was playing at the time. Perhaps this was the idea!

In fact, it is a rather old-fashioned production and relies on the cast to bring it alive, and here it helped that we were treated to some extremely strong performances.

The Royal Opera Chorus in Nabucco © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013
Dmitri Platanias, whom we last saw in Cav & Pag at Covent Garden, made a strong Nabucco, using his physical presence to create a thuggish King but showing that he has enough suaveness to shape Verdi's lines. This is vocal writing in which we can still see the young composer's links to late Donizetti, and Platanias showed a pleasing ability to fill the phrases strongly, but keep the tone even throughout the range, and enlivened by a nice warmth of tone. In the second half, when Nabucco wanders half-mad, Platanias was both convincing and moving. Does Elijah Moshinsky's 1990 production of Attila still exist (it was last revived in 2002), it would be certainly good to see Platanias in the title role of that.

Platanias's strong physicality ensured that Liudmyla Monastyrska's Abigaille did not completely blow everything around her away. Monastyrska has a wonderfully fearsome approach to Abigaille's music, relishing the leaps and changes of register. Her passage-work was sometimes a bit broad-brush, but she had the virtue of really bringing Abigaille's character into the music. All was not outrageous dramatics though, and had restrained moments culminating in a fine death scene. Certainly her Italian left something to be desired, and tone was often quite Slavic, but this was certainly a terrific performance in the grand manner.

Not for the first time, I wondered again about the style and size of voice for which Verdi intended the role. Giuseppina Strepponi, who sang in the premiere, also sang Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvira in I Puritani and Norma. Though her career terminated early due to oversinging, the combination of roles makes you think.

John Relyea made a dignified Zaccaria, singing with a nice sense of style yet overall his character seemed to lack to depth and strength to be the religious leader of the Jews. For all the beauty of Relyea's musical performance, I rather wanted something a bit more of an Old Testament prophet.

The young lovers have a relatively small role. Miriam Treichl made a fine grained, somewhat low-key Fenena, though as this was her single performance in the role at the end of the run she has hardly had time to get bedded in. She was well paired by the passionate Ismaele of Jean-Francois Borras and I would happily hear the two again in larger roles.

David Shipley, Vlada Borovko and Samuel Sakker in the smaller roles provided neat support, though it was rather unclear who they were supposed to be.

It was lovely to see Renato Balsadonna in the pit, and he drew a fine performance from the orchestra, robust yet not unstylish. And the chorus responded well to their soon-to-be former chorus master, and the choral singing was some of the best I have heard on the stage. Not just in Va pensiero but in the other big choruses too.

This was a production which doesn't frighten the horses, and some of the details of Alison Chitty's designs have a real abstract elegance. But it was the strong individual performances from the cast which brought this production alive.

Update: I originally managed to make Renato Balsadonna's departure as chorus master a bit too early.

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