For many music lovers, opera is Verdi, so it’s unusual that Opera Queensland hasn’t staged Verdi for three years. The last was A Masked Ball in 2004. Before that it was Requiem in ’03, Rigoletto in ’01, Trov in 2000, Trav in 1999 and so on. But you can have too much of a good thing, and the Verdi drought hasn’t been a bad idea, not least for giving a run to such other 19th century composers as Donizetti, Gounod and Humperdinck.
Verdi’s Brisbane come-back is in the form of an early work, famous but not often performed, Nabucco. It’s an unusual piece beautiful music to a pretty awful libretto. Not uncommon in opera, some may say, but this one is particularly silly and melodramatic. One can add little to the summary of a 19th century critic and rival of Verdi’s: “rage, invective, bloodshed and murder”. The storyline is all over the place, the characterisation is thin, the love story weak, the denoument unlikely.
On the other hand the music is great, in good old dramatic Verdi style. Not consistently super-great, as in later masterpieces like Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore, but pretty damned good. Moreover, it’s exciting to discern foreshadowings of greater things to come.
The overture under Italian conductor Giovanni Reggioli asserts that old Verdi magic, with its strength and vitality and lots of brass. It sets the tone for a performance in which Reggioli is in firm control.
There are splendid musical moments in an opera which is very chorus-centred. Often it’s the lot of choristers to spend most of their time in the Green Room playing cards, but here they’re hard at it, with some very extensive and challenging choral work. Newly-appointed chorus master Richard Lewis has brought out their powerful and resonant best.
Director David Freeman has let his imagination run riot. You can imagine his thinking: will I set it in ancient Babylon? Or in the modern-day Middle-East? Iraq? Middle-ages, perhaps? Can’t decide, let’s do the lot. (He reveals he also flirted with the idea of doing it in 19th century Risorgimento Italy.)
The production and Dan Potra’s design are a bizarre mix of styles and genres. A besuited gun-toting Nabucco as Saddam Hussein is accompanied by soldiers in mediaeval helmets and chain mail. His daughter in high heels negotiates with heathen priests who look like tasselled lampshades. The Hebrew slaves wear cloth caps, scarves and overcoats. Monty Python beards are in profusion. At times the performance teeters on the brink of pantomime, and it’s not clear how seriously we are meant to take the whole thing. The audience laughs nervously at Abigaille’s couch scene and applauds a bit of stage-hand work by supernumerary soldiers.
There are fabulous effects a huge Baal effigy which disintegrates, walls which are blasted open as Nabucco invades the temple. Replacing the original story’s bolt of lightning is a waterfall of blood which drops on Nabucco from on-high when he declares himself god, rendering him mad, and understandably. The great chorus of the slaves “Va pensiero” is sung from behind a wall representing the ghetto, perhaps? (And by the way, where’s the encore this chorus is supposed to get?)
The principals keep in good voice despite all the lunacy of which they are part and two are especially memorable: bass Andrew Collis is consistently outstanding as high priest Zaccaria, his voice strong and powerful, while soprano Cynthia Makris thrills as daughter and would-be queen Abigaille. Her duet with Nabucco is magnificent, and we look forward to seeing/hearing her return to Queensland next October as Turandot.
Baritone Michael Lewis sings confidently as Nabucco and is touchingly convincing in the way he captures the king’s insanity (even when having to crawl out of a dungeon with heavy rope attached to his leg). Tenor Bernard Hull as star-crossed lover Ismaele has the odd shaky moment in higher registers but overall sings with grace, as does contralto Liane Keegan as king’s daughter Fenena, although dramatically their love affair doesn’t really ignite. Peter Axford as Babylonian high priest, Sarah Crane as Anna and Rafael Soler as Abdallo round out the quality ensemble.
Overall it’s an entertaining show, with singing of commendable quality and a lot of production elements to shock and awe. But I can’t help thinking that this is one of those operas which is best performed in concert.