Deutsche Oper Berlin 2019-20 Review: Nabucco

Maria Guleghina Gives Masterful Performance In Verdi’s Early Work

By Elyse Lyon
(Credit: Bernd Uhlig)

The Deutsche Oper Berlin’s current “Nabucco” is a production by Keith Warner, first presented in 2013. It’s not an unconventional production, at least by Berlin standards.

Where Berlin opera is often characterized by the most provocative nontraditional productions—Frank Castorf’s recent “Forza” premiere, for instance, provoked a near-riot among its Deutsche Oper audiences—Warner’s “Nabucco,” by contrast, feels tame.

A Tame Rendition

Warner’s production isn’t strictly traditional, but neither is it alarming. Its colors are eye-catchingly saturated. Theatrical fog billows impressively from the stage, often dramatically illuminated by color gels. Its costumes would seem at home in a Metropolitan Opera production: not the street clothing one often sees in Berlin productions, where Violetta might wear sagging socks and Liu an ill-fitting cargo jacket, but rather suits and gowns apparently modeled after the fashions of the 1840s, the era “Nabucco” was premiered. The women of the chorus wear high-collared black dresses, straight out of a blockbuster historical film. The men are attired in equally modest 19th-century suits.

Despite the Victorian costumes, the production is no straightforward period piece. The set appears bland and anodyne in the cutting-edge context of Berlin, but it might well raise eyebrows in a more conservative environment. All the drama takes place in the confines of what appears a stylized industrial landscape. The stage is initially encircled by a wall apparently intended to evoke rusted steel. As the music begins, the massive, rust-colored front wall is clamped shut. Only gradually does it part in the middle, heaved apart by a grave and white-haired and elderly Hebrew. It’s doubtless intended as a magical moment, and doubtless some in the audience find it so: the iron wall parting, the theatrical fog rolling forth, the dramatic music of Verdi’s youth billowing up from the orchestra pit.

For audiences accustomed to Berlin’s most incisive and daring productions, however, the effect of the production falls flat. It seems to wallow in some muddy middle ground between the nostalgic pleasures of tradition and the intellectual excitement of provocation, reaching in both directions without satisfactorily meeting the demands of either.

The subject of “Nabucco,” to be sure, is extraordinarily fraught in modern-day Germany, where the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust are apparent around every corner. Neighborhoods near the Deutsche Oper are peppered with memorial Stolperteine, brass plates set into the ground and stamped with the names of Jews deported from their homes and murdered in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Riga. The Deutsche Oper itself is nestled into the corner of Bismarckstraße and Richard-Wagner-Straße, the name of the latter figure inevitably recalling all the horrors of Nazi Germany along with the heights of German opera.

For these reasons, Keith Warner’s production seems commendable in its efforts: it’s evident that he’s attempted to do justice to an opera that exalts the beleaguered Jews and sympathizes with their plight. For the same reason, however, the ultimate result of these efforts is uncompelling. Warner’s production makes a show of incorporating specifically Jewish imagery—Jewish prayer shawls, for instance, plus much use of the Hebrew language—but the show is easy and uncomplicated to watch, more of a spectacle than a confrontation. It appears serious on the surface, but anodyne and unconfrontational at its heart. One does not feel, as an audience member, that the plight of the Jews is personally relevant, nor that the themes of murderous religious prejudice and the potential for genocidal violence are as urgent today as they ever were.

Longing for Homeland

The most relevant and thought-provoking element of the production is its use of untranslated Hebrew text.

In the initial minutes of the opera, when the rust-orange encircling wall has first been pushed open, the chorus surrounds an immense cubic structure. The men’s attitude toward the structure is prayerful: one has a vague impression, at first, of the black cube of the Kaaba at Mecca, and then (because the characters are Hebrews, not Muslims) of Jews praying, backs turned, before the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The cubic structure, however, is not at all what one might anticipate: it’s the wooden crate surrounding an immense printing press, a machine which evidently is intended to symbolize the intellectual wealth of Jewish cultural heritage. While the men of the chorus stand before it in an attitude of prayer, the women of the chorus bind the books it’s apparently already printed.

The machine, at first, is employed in spitting out posters bearing Fenena’s photograph, which the Hebrews forthwith plaster to the walls of the set around them. Apparently they’re spreading the news that they hold Nabucco’s daughter hostage. The effect is silly to anyone familiar with 19th-century printing presses: the machine ejects the posters like modern-day print-outs, page after page emerging as they would from a laser printer. It’s difficult not to imagine, with tittering amusement, some crew member crouched in the stage machinery, poking pre-printed posters through a slot.

Soon, however, the printing press begins to spit out banners in Hebrew. The effect is no less absurd—once again, their production bears no apparent relation to the action of a real printing press—but this time, the impression is more serious. From the beginning, these Hebrew-language banners appear to be of monumental importance. The chorus gravely displays them to the audience, then lays them down along the length of the proscenium line, where they remain until the final curtain. At times the chorus overlays them with new texts, blotting out the original Hebrew with different texts, also in Hebrew. All of this is done solemnly and with a sense of terrific import. All the while, of course, very few audience members are likely to understand even a character of what’s written there.

There’s something genuinely meaningful in the way this language barrier reverses an audience’s ordinary experience. It seems, in the moments when Hebrew texts take the stage, that oneself, with one’s lack of understanding, is suddenly the outsider in the room. For a moment, one experiences a glimpse of what many foreigners and minorities grapple with: the puzzle of navigating existence in spheres where one struggles with the language, in which the feeling of not belonging and not understanding often becomes a crushing and humiliating burden. One feels a deepened understanding of the Hebrew exiles’ longing for their homeland, the place where they belonged and where they better understood the world around them. O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!

It’s an element, too, that highlights one of Verdi’s most winning qualities: his identification with and willingness to defend outsiders and underdogs of all kinds. Operas like “Aida” and “Otello” may seem shamefully dated from our current perspective, but the fact remains that Verdi chose to give voice, humanity, and an immortal anthem to the very people whom Wagner’s work would later be used to justify exterminating. Verdi, of course, was Wagner’s agemate, both of them born a few months apart in the same year of 1813. To sit in the auditorium of the Deutsche Oper, on the corner of Richard-Wagner-Straße, surrounded by a dense mass of memorials to murdered Jews and the enduring marks of the Nazi era and its aftermath: there’s something profound, here, in seeing untranslated Hebrew take the stage, asserting itself as if it belongs there. To feel, for an instant, that it’s the Jews who belong at center stage, and the rest of us who are uneasy outsiders.

An Unforgettable Anti-Heroine 

Maria Guleghina as Abigaille was indisputably the star of these performances. She erupted onto the stage with tremendous force and obvious enjoyment of the role. Shrill and vengeful in Part I, her voice rising and plunging through harsh high notes and ominous low ones, she established herself immediately as a personification of evil. She was not vocally pretty, not likable, not always easy on the ears—but she was thrilling, alive, and full of extraordinary power. Her performance brought to mind Alex Ross’s comment on Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris: “Not all the sounds she made were beautiful, but all had a dramatic point.”

How surprising, then, to encounter Guleghina again in Part II, when her character has newly discovered that she’s the daughter of a slave rather than of a king. Guleghina, in this scene, sang “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” with an intimacy and deep sensitivity that made a marvelous contrast to the evil of Part I. Her portrayal was hauntingly human. One felt as if one witnessed a deeply private moment: as if Abigaille were alone with herself, musing aloud on her soul’s deepest longings. The stage, the audience, the theater itself: all the artifice and spectacle of opera seemed erased. It felt as if only one human were present, singing words that were genuine, vulnerable, and real.

In Part III Guleghina became wonderfully queenly, imperious and believable in her enjoyment of political dominance. Most powerful of all, however, was her repentance scene in Part IV. Here she sang with the thin, breaking voice of a dying Violetta. She was more vulnerable and genuine than ever, and utterly believable in her humanity. The ethereal otherworldliness of her plea for mercy brought to mind Lucia’s mad scene. One sympathized with her deeply, despite her evil, as one sympathizes with the murderess Lucia. When she fell to the stage in death, rejected by God as her beloved and her father had already rejected her, one felt God’s judgment as a cruel blow. It made an extraordinary contrast with her entrance in Part I, when she’d seemed nothing more than a hurricane of hatred and vengeance.

Paling In Comparison

George Gagnidze as Nabucco, by contrast, seemed pale in comparison with Guleghina. His performance was dramatically intelligent; one felt that each word he sang had meaning; his voice was satisfyingly robust; and yet the restraint of his performance, paired with Guleghina’s phenomenal fireworks, made his performance seem to lack a spark of reality. His was a life-sized performance, whereas Guleghina’s was larger than life. He was most effective when not paired with Guleghina onstage. In Part IV, when his character returns to sanity and Guleghina’s Abigaille is no longer present with him, his repentant pleas to God felt heartbreakingly earnest, dramatically sensitive, and no longer pale.

John Relyea’s high priest, meanwhile, was believably solemn and stentorian, a worthy representative of God. His performance was strong throughout, though it, too, lacked some dramatic thrill.

Annika Schlicht’s Fenena was extraordinary for its beauty of tone. Unlike Abigaille, Fenena has little opportunity to display herself as a three-dimensional and deeply nuanced character. Even so, she exerted herself as one of the highlights of the evening. Every opportunity to hear her voice was pure delight. Her elegant, full and creamy mezzo was heart-stoppingly gorgeous in every note. In the execution scene, she sang like a saint who had already ascended to heaven. Her voice remained riveting in each instant it rose above the others. It asserted its beauty and character—and the beauty and character of Fenena herself—even amid the dense choral environment of the opera’s finale.

Ismaele was sung the first night by Robert Watson, and on the second by Attilio Glaser. Both singers brought their own unique qualities to the work. Where Watson’s youthful tenor established the character’s purity and innocence, Glaser was a more mature Ismaele, vocally darker and dramatically gripping. In the Part I trio between Fenena, Ismaele, and Abigaille, Watson’s youthful tone combined with Schlicht’s exquisite mezzo to create an evocative contrast between the young lovers, on one hand, and Abigaille’s apparent unadulterated evil. Glaser, with his darker edge, didn’t create the same powerful effect of innocence against evil. He made up for that, however, in the second scene of Part II, when he imbued his brief appearance with unforgettable, heartrending anguish at being named a traitor.

The conductor Carlo Montanaro, meanwhile, provided sustained interest in a score that tends to seem inchoate and emotionally scattered. The overture began with brassy warmth, then apocalyptic bursts of shocking sound. It was ominous one moment, humorous the next. The music plunged forward like a hectic race into death. Over the course of the performance, it was melancholy and then sprightly, pensive and then devastating. It was an orchestral interpretation to appreciate and enjoy, if not a world-shattering one.

As a whole, Keith Warner’s production remained unfulfilling, though interesting enough in its own way. Maria Guleghina, however, was a force of nature, andher masterly, enthralling, emotionally nuanced performance of Abigaille is one to make a skeptic take the role seriously. While not a flawless night, it was memorable and worthwhile.


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