Ellen Kent Opera: Nabucco, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★

Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, telling the story of the persecution of Israelites by the Babylonians, has over the decades come to be treated as an allegory for contemporary oppression in Europe. The work’s most famous choral tune, Va, pensiero, better known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, has resonated from the 1840s Italy in which Verdi wrote the opera, to the persecutions of Jews by the Nazi regime and the subsequent post-war partition of Germany.

None of that is really visible in Ellen Kent’s staging, which steadfastly sticks to a traditional setting. From the outset, it is Zaccaria, the high priest of the Temple of Solomon, who impresses, Vadym Chernihovsky’s impressive bass setting the standard for all that is to follow. It is when Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is taken hostage and entrusted to Ismaele that the drawbacks to Kent’s staging become most apparent. Zarui Vardanean and Vitali Liskovetsky have fine command of their respective arias, but struggle with any of the acting aspects of opera, looking most uncomfortable when not declaiming to the audience.

In contrast, the scheming Abigaille – the opera’s true villain – is brought to life by soprano Olga Perrier. As her scheming to secure Ismaele for herself helps to precipitate first the destruction of the temple, and then her father’s madness, Perrier combines a delicious voice with a scene-chewing performance that manages to avoid being camp.

Similarly, Iurie Gisca’s Nabucco, while being a less impressively towering presence than the King of Babylon might be assumed to be, is effective in his destructive rage as the Temple of Solomon burns, in some straightforward but effective lighting. Later, as he descends into madness and starts proclaiming himself to be a god, his arias are bold and commanding.

Throughout, the emphasis is clearly on musical and vocal performance above staging. In the opera’s closing acts, as Abigaille’s scheming and Nabucco’s madness reach their climax, there is little in the way of dramatic performance. And while Kent’s opera company has drawn upon local acting schools to swell their numbers in crowd scenes, there is little in the way of character coming from the background artists, their unsure shuffling occasionally distracting from the dramatic score.

Thankfully, the power of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves manages to rise above such concerns. Nabucco’s most popular chorus delivers the emotional punch that has made it resonate across the centuries. And while this production of Verdi’s opera may not be the best, and does not make as much effort to explore the acting element of opera as much as it does the music and singing, its orchestration and vocals go some way to make up for such shortcomings.

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