With over 150 opera productions to his credit, British director Keith Warner is hardly a neophyte in the lyric theatre. The mystery is how this respected regisseur could have made such a muddle out of “Nabucco” for the Deutsche Oper Berlin. After all, it is not so difficult to stage Verdi’s first great operatic triumph. Jean-Paul Scarpitta managed to come up with a highly effective production in Rome in 2013 with little more than historically accurate costumes and clever lighting.
Apart from a bleak Le Corbusier-esque vertical structure, the most striking feature of Tilo Steffens bare set was an ominous machine which could have been an industrial garbage-pulverizer or WWI military bunker, but was in fact a stylized post-Gutenberg printing press. It was certainly an odd accoutrement in the Temple of Solomon. There was a steep stepladder to the flat roof which Abigaille frequently climbed up and down for no particular purpose, other than possibly strengthening her thigh muscles for the next Babylon Marathon. In his program notes, Warner speaks of Industrial Revolution enlightenment but the means of dissemination was already compromised by Zaccaria for propaganda purposes as the press churned out none too flattering porcine posters of Nabucco’s captive daughter Fenena. Without any human participation, the Willy Wonker machine also miraculously emitted vast lengths of Hebraic texts which were undoubtedly fascinating for Hebrew speakers in the audience, but incomprehensible for the vast majority. Dramaturgical problems became even more apparent with the scene change to Babylon in Act two in that nothing changed at all. Perhaps as a trophy of war, the gigantic printing press had become the property of the Babylonians. It suddenly spewed out the document providing the incriminating evidence of Abigail’s lowly birth as she was strolling by, a bit like one of Harry Potter’s owl post missives. At least Warner observed Temistocle Solera’s textual reference to the Book of Jeremiah which states: “The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell in Babylon, and the owls shall dwell therein.”
The “Prophecy” section opened with a sumptuously dressed Abigaille in flagrante dilecto with the obliging High Priest of Baal to the amusement of the Magi and envy of the Hebrew virgins. The only major scene change was in Act three when the extended Le Corbusier structure provided a lofty terrace for Nabucco’s al fresco slammer. The golden statue of Baal fated to be shattered must have got lost in transit. In place of the printing press, there was a large transparent tube to nowhere, possibly a Frank Gehry-style interpretation of Babel’s famous tower. The legendary hanging gardens of Babylon were notably bereft of flora but did have a lot of noose ropes suspended from the ceiling. Clearly Warner didn’t interpret “hanging” in a horticultural sense but as the means for the Babylonians to get rid of their cacophonous captives. Historically, the preferred method of Assyrian execution was much nastier flaying alive or impalement. The nooses made even less sense when the mass extermination of the prisoners was about to be accomplished by bullets to the head. The whole hybrid mis-en-scène had about as much to do with homesick Hebrews as the Al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad.
Julia Müer’s costumes not only failed to solve the historical time-period enigma, but added to the confusion. The grim, po-faced Hebrew women wore drab, black, bustled, bosom-crushing Victorian era ankle-length gowns which could have come from 17th century Quaker wardrobes. The male portion of the prisoner population were so pre-occupied with their tallits and prayer shawls it was as if they were preening themselves for the next set of selfies. Abigaille’s “Devil Wears Prada” haute couture and the appearance of Babylonian soldiers brandishing what looked like Glock 7’s stretched the possible time range of Warner’s biblical fantasyland from c. 1450-2006. The only time it could not have been was 587 BC. In an unexpected nod to 20th century ecumenicalism, Zaccaria’s sister Anna looked like a Salvation Army zealot and carried around a Protestant Bible which she held aloft as if it was George Fox’s version of the Holy Grail. The final directional deviation was an extra-textual hirsute old man wandering aimlessly about. Perhaps he was supposed to be God – or possibly the janitor.
The multiple problems of the production were not particularly improved by the musical component. Paolo Arrivabeni first conducted this production in Berlin in 2015 but there was no indication of a maturing in his reading or reduction in the decibels. The overture was far from pristine with the opening trombone chords more mushy than maestoso. Strings in the allegro time change had suitable rhythmic verve but needed more marcato. The first instrumental statement of the “Va pensiero” theme is marked andantino but the golden wings had a brisk take-off. First flute displayed fine trilling and continued to be impressive in Abigaille’s “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” and Nabucco’s “Dio di Giuda”. The cantabile cello introduction to Zaccaria’s Pregheria was seductive and sonorous.
With so much pandemonium coming from the pit, it was not just the Hebrew prisoners who were having a hard time of it, but the Deutsche Oper chorus did their best to make amends. The opening “Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti” ensemble of Hebrews, Levites and chaste looking virgins bemoaning the sacking of the Temple was powerful and punchy. Considering they are singing about tearing down the festive decorations, it was incongruous that the women were engaged in embroidering what appeared to be a huge tabernacle cloth. The à capella “Immenso Jeovha” in Act four was notable for the clarity of the individual vocal lines and the celebrated “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” chorus was memorable for scrupulously attentive dynamic changes. It is marked largo but Arrivabeni’s tempi suggested the Hebrews were in a rush to get home.
A Mixed Bag Of Leads
The soloists were a mixed bag. Dong-Hwan Lee was Abigaile’s boy-toy in religious vestments, but this Gran Sacerdote seemed to have spent more time perfecting his pectorals than studying solfège. Judit Kutasi was a rather matronly Fenena with a slightly prominent vibrato which failed to provide the ideal contrast with her spinto sister. “Oh dischiuso è il firmamento!” is marked cantabile and would have benefitted from less wobble. The grace notes were essentially graceless. Ismaele is not the greatest role Verdi ever created for tenor, although its importance in the ensembles is significant. Gaston Rivero sang with more metal than mellifluousness and was constricted in the upper register. He was also not likely to be nominated for best foreign actor playing the role of the nephew of the King of Jerusalem. His reaction to being banished by the Hebrew brethren during “Il maledetto non ha fratelli” was closer to mildly miffed than indignantly wretched and musically the top A’s were easily swamped by the livid Levites.
Verdi was not too fond of organized religion and his high priests, low priests, Grand Inquisitors or acquisitive clerics are never particularly admirable characters. The sanctimonious Zaccaria is no exception. Liang Li was predictably puffed-up and priggish but despite some strong top E naturals, vocally below par. From the “Sperate, o figli! Iddio” recitative there was poor resonance on the low C sharps and too little attention paid to the dynamic markings. The “Come notte a sol fulgente” cabaletta was more hooty than heroic although the top F sharps had gusto. His righteous indignation when Nabucco elevates himself to a deity in “Insano! a terra” was recondite rather than rabid. The important Preghiera was more perfunctory than passionate and Liang’s vocalization nowhere as moving as the cello solo. “Tu sul labbro de’ veggenti” lacked legato and the short scale to low G got more tentative with each descending crochet. Liang’s enunciation sounded closer to Aramaic than Italian.
Abigaille’s entry into the temple was accompanied by an escort of soldiers and a formidable vibrato. Admittedly this is a terrifying role which has derailed the careers of otherwise formidable sopranos such as Sylvia Sass and Elena Souliotis. Ekaterina Metlova certainly looked glamorous enough but was probably lucky to get through the evening vocally unscathed. The Russian soprano sang a successful Tosca in Grange Park last year, but “vissi d’arte” is not “vissi d’Abigaille.” Typical of the Russian school of singing, Metlova was more belty than bel canto with not many pastel shades on the palette. The very first deep B natural on “Prode guerrier” hinted at lower range projection problems to come. The sixteenth note roulade on “sospeso è già!” starting from a high B flat had fire but no finesse although the arpeggio from top B flat to middle C in “Di scorno! Prole Abigail di schiavi!!” was stellar. “Io schiava? Io schiava?” had the requisite haughty disdain and the explosion of sixteenth note roulades on “Tale ti rendo, o misero” was technically accurate but a tad metallic. The rollicking “Salgo già del trono aurato” cabaletta with its octave plus leaps, rapid roulades, extending trilling, double octave semiquaver scales and stratospheric tessitura was more edgy than elegant. Metlova certainly looked washed up in the post-poison dénouement but showed more subtlety in “Te chiamo te Dio te venero!”
Unlike a few pensionable baritones around who harrumph and hoot their way through the title role with minimal musicality and maximum chutzpah, Željko Lučić managed to overcome the burdens of both production and costuming to give an outstanding performance. Looking more mendicant than monarch, the Serbian baritone brought musical intelligence, powerful projection and impressive vocal finesse to a part where heightened histrionics often substitute for inferior singing skills. Verdi places innumerable demands on what was a new kind of “high baritone” and Lučić had the cantabile of Piero Cappuccilli with the gravitas of Tito Gobbi. There was fury aplenty on the high F natural on “Dal capo mio la prendi!” and in the opening of the polyphonic canonic “S’appressan gl’istanti” quintet with chorus Lučić had not only commanding stage presence but the precise “sottovoce e cupo” quality Verdi specified. The explosive E flat on “non son più re, son Dio!!” with crashing cymbals and cascading strings had Caligula-like craziness but kept the correct intonation. “Chi mi toglie il regio scettro?” was actually sung rather than spat, with a lyrical E flat fermata on “Oh mia figlia.” “Deh perdona, deh perdona” was phrased with mellifluous legato which would have melted a heart of stone, or at least the statute of Baal if there had been one. “Dio di Giuda!,” with a plethora of high F natural fermate and the following “O prodi miei, seguitemi” cabaletta were the musical high points of the performance. This converted tyrant certainly deserved redemption – at least for having endured Keith Warner’s exasperating production.
“Stop the Press” indeed.