Nabucco Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto Temistocle Solera
Director: Rudolf Frey
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Showcasing the charismatic chorus of the WNO, this seldom performed yet musically familiar opera is presented in a 1950s setting in this new production. Almost ten years since WNO’s last performance (staged at the New Theatre) of the epic Verdi opera best known for its splendid ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va, pensiero’) director Rudolf Frey and choreographer Beate Vollack have created a production which embraces not only operatic tradition but the mores of modern times. The result is a soaring production that has audiences jumping to their feet and calling out “Bravo!”
The Biblical context of the conflict between the Hebrews and the Egyptians is the background of the story and generates a web of warlike violence and political intrigue. Nabucco (sung by David Kempster) is the King of the Babylonians whose daughter Felena (sung by Justina Gringyte), is held hostage by the Hebrews, under the jurisdiction of their High priest Zaccaria, sung by Kevin Short. Not only does Short bring a powerful and compelling bass-baritone to the role, but shows that he is also an actor of considerable merit. After defeating the Hebrews, Nabucco is convinced that he is God, and becomes insane. Baritone David Kempster – well known to WNO audiences – once again does not disappoint, bringing pathos to the role as Nabucco descends into madness. His projection is of a quasi King Lear – the richness and decadence of Babylon replacing the blasted heath of Shakespeare’s play.
The dominant female role of Abigaille, Nabucco’s other daughter and rival of Felena in succession to the throne, is a key factor and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, making her return after singing Tosca with the WNO last autumn, rises to the challenge superbly. A combination of lyricism and dramatic energy projects her relish for the role as well as her expertise and holds the audience spellbound.
Set designer Ben Baur deserves an accolade for opting for such devices as the singular usage of gold lamé drapes to represent the dross of the Babylonian scene and a symbolic wall (the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, capital of Israel?) that of the Hebrews. Less fortunate, perhaps, is the inclusion of Fifties dance steps and hand-jiving. Costume designers Silke Willrett and Marc Weeger are to be commended, in particular for distinguishing touches such as the yarmulkes (skull caps) – traditional synagogue wear for men of the Jewish faith – worn by the Hebrews.
Highly commended is the dynamic conducting of the diminutive Xian Zhang whose debut with WNO this is. Zhang wields her baton with expertise over Verdi’s diverse score for this production of one of Verdi’s earliest yet most successful operas; an opera which, in the best of operatic tradition, culminates in an intense and gripping finale..
Runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until Saturday, June 15th , then touring.