Sunday 22 July 2018

A family in crisis and a study in dementia: radical new version of Verdi's Nabucco from Heidenheim

Verdi: Nabucco - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi: Nabucco - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi Nabucco; Antonio Yang, Ira Bertman, Katerina, Hebelkova, Adrian Dumitru, Randall Jakobsh, dir: Helen Malkowsky, Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, cond: Marijn Simons; Heidenheim Opera Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 July 2018 Star rating: 3.0
Verdi's Biblical opera re-worked as a study of dementia and a family in crisis

Fenena and Ismaele are celebrating the bar mitzvah of their son, amongst the guests are their rabbi, Zaccaria, members of the Orthodox Jewish community, and members of Fenena's Assyrian family, her father, the elderly Field Marshall Nabucco, and her half-sister Abigaille.

Verdi: Nabucco - Ira Bertman, Antonio Yang, Andrew Nolen - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Ira Bertman, Antonio Yang, Andrew Nolen
Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Thus begins Helen Malkowsky's production of Verdi's Nabucco for the Heidenheim Opera Festival. Designed for performance outdoors in the ruins of the Rittersaal in the castle, on Saturday 21 July 2018 rain forced the production to transfer to the theatre at the nearby congress centre. Productions are designed to fit into both locations and tickets are dual numbered! 

Marijn Simons conducted the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno with Antonio Yang as Nabucco, Ira Bertman as Abigaille, Katerina Hebelkova as Fenena, Adrian Dumitru as Ismaele, Randall Jakobsh as Zaccaria, Christoph Wittmann as Abdallo, Eva Bauchmuller as Anna and Andrew Nolen as the High Priest of Baal. Helen Malkowsky directed, with set designs were by Harald B Thor with costumes by Cornelia Kraske and lighting by Hartmut Litzinger.

For Malkowsky, Nabucco is about a family in crisis, set in the context of an Orthodox Jewish community under siege from a foreign invader. Costumes were roughly contemporary and Thor's set included three screens at the rear which varied between projections of Biblical text and newsreels about the developing war situation. Both sides of the stage had scaffolding towers, obscured by plastic sheeting, which were used by the chorus when singing off stage. As the piece developed, Malkowsky proceeded to explore Nabucco's breakdown from dementia and the stress it caused his family.

Verdi: Nabucco - Katerina Hebelkova, Adrian Dumitru - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Katerina Hebelkova, Adrian Dumitru
Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Elements of the original plot, such as Abigaille seizing the crown, were presented as fantasy sequences with the High Priest of Baal (clad in a lurid gold suit) as a sort of fantasy figure. Other elements were muted by having the chorus off-stage, so 'Va pensiero' was staged as if in Nabucco's mind. The problem was that the further Malkowsky's drama moved from Verdi and Solera's original, the less convincing the dramatic whole became. The climax of Malkowsky's drama was when the demented Nabucco killed Ismaele and Fenena grieved over his body.

In this context, Antonio Yang gave a powerful and moving performance as the elderly Nabucco, trapped in his own mind. On stage for most of the last two acts, it was a striking performance even though it wasn't Verdi and Solera's Nabucco. Ira Bertman was a very traditional Abigaille, highly dramatic with a voice to match. She produced plenty of power and gave us some thrilling moments, but her voice was inclined to be rather under pressure at the top which compromised her top notes, and her passagework was a bit sketchy. Her best moments were the quieter, more intimate ones.

Verdi: Nabucco - Randall Jakobsh, Antonio Yang - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Randall Jakobsh, Antonio Yang
Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Katerina Hebelkova made an attractive Fenena, and she aptly conveyed the character's conflict between husband and family but it was in her final aria, grieving over Ismaele's body, that she really impressed. Adrian Dumitru provided her with strong support as her husband Ismaele, though his role in the drama was somewhat reduced in this version. As Zaccaria, here the rabbi figure, Randall Jakobsh, produced a thrilling dark sound and rightly dominated dramatically, but his voice did not move easily around Verdi's vocal lines.

I was aware that all the previous performances of the opera had been out of doors, and there were a number of occasions when you felt that the singers were only beginning to get to grips with the change in acoustic. Overall the performance lacked the light and shade the the previous night's I Lombardi had had, see my review, but this is understandable in the circumstances with the change in venue.

Christoph Wittmann and Eva Bauchmuller provided strong support as Abdallo, here a photographer figure, and Anna, apparently the children's nanny. Andrew Nolen had great fun as the High Priest of Baal in his gaudy gilded suit.

The Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno were on top form, dramatically convincing as members of the Jewish community, and producing a subtle and musical account of 'Va pensiero', even if we could barely see them, but there were plenty of other moments to enjoy such as 'Immenso Jehovah'. In fact, everything they sang combined great subtlety with profound beauty of tone, and their performance was one of the musical highlights of the evening.

Marijn Simons was conducting the second of his two performances (the majority were conducted by Marcus Bosch), and started off with an enjoyably lithe account of the overture, and he kept the opera flowing beautifully.

Verdi: Nabucco - Antonio Yang, Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi: Nabucco - Antonio Yang, Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
The programme book came complete with a synopsis (in German) which reflected Helen Malkowsky's revised scenario, but I am of the rather old-fashioned view that any opera performance, even a radical re-working, should be able to stand on its own feel and not require preparatory reading. I am also aware that I was not seeing the production under ideal circumstances and regret that we were not able to see the production in its outdoor setting. The entire cast threw themselves into Malkowsky's conception of the opera with admirable conviction, and there was much enjoyable detail. But ultimately, this Nabucco failed to move me as it should.

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