Royal Opera House, London

Classical review: Nabucco - Fifty shades of grey, the opera

3.00

In a leaden park-and-bark reading of a Verdian tale of love and loss, the set has more dramatic range than the principals

First seen in Milan, Daniele Abbado's production of Nabucco is a penitentially grey experience. Redemption is slow to arrive in Verdi's Old Testament opera of captivity and oppression, the closest he got to writing an oratorio. The usual tropes of paternal and romantic love are sidelined in a drama of faith and power: heavy abstract nouns for two warring peoples to wrestle with, abuse or relinquish. The story follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered, and exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar). Though the God that prevails is that of the Jews, the Babylonian deity Baal doesn't go down without a fight.

Abbado's production opens with a perfect synthesis of stage and pit as conductor Nicola Luisotti navigates the slow, stern beauty of Verdi's overture. As it proceeds, Alessandro Carletti's lighting bathes Alison Chitty's austere set of grey plinths in the pale wash of dawn, the glare of noon, the softening of dusk and the long shadows of a moonlit night. This perfection is shortlived. Despite the presence of an associate director and a movement director, Chitty's plinths display a wider dramatic range than the principals, channelling the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, tombs on the Mount of Olives, the tight alleys of the Lodz ghetto and the gas chambers. What dynamism there is on stage during the remainder of the opera comes from the furtive movements on the video screen – a series of pogroms surveyed as though from above – and from the watchful engagement of the non-singing actors and chorus.

Clad alike in 1940s greys, it's hard to tell a difference between Babylonian and Jew – a worthy point, perhaps, but not one that helps you follow the plot. While Abbado organises the chorus into Spielbergian huddles, the soloists get on with their jobs as usual. It's not as though there aren't histrionics. Leo Nucci's Nabucco loses his mind, Liudmyla Monastyrska's Abigaille loses her cool, and others their liberty. Occasionally there are random outbreaks of eye-contact.

Seldom is there a sense of relationships tightening, of blood-lines or curdled love. For the most part it is park and bark (Carè, Kowaljow and veteran High Priest Robert Lloyd), park and hiss (Nucci), park and melt (Pizzolato) and, in Abigaille's monstrous cavatina and cabaletta, park and deafen (Monastyrska). Orchestrally, the performance is superb, and the a capella chord at the close of the chorus "Va pensiero" is divine. Wonderful conducting from Luisotti but, plinths aside, it's a concert performance in Lenten clothing.

Gary Hill, the celebrated American video artist, has never directed an opera before. As he cheerfully announced ahead of the opening of his Lyon Opera and Edinburgh International Festival co-production of Fidelio (Opéra de Lyon, Lyon ***) last week, he didn't even know what Fidelio was. His first idea, to transpose Beethoven's score so that Bob Dylan could sing the role of Florestan as US-army whistleblower Bradley Manning, was rejected. A second idea, to frame the opera in a spaceship and interpolate cantos from Harry Martinson's 1956 science-fiction verse-novel, Aniara, was not. Thus Fidelio opens in a remote galaxy, which looks almost exactly as people have imagined remote galaxies to look since the 1920s, save for the breathtaking darting and spiralling of Hill's three-dimensional projections and the total isolation in which Nikolai Schukoff's Florestan is suspended.

The conducting is impeccably judged. In an opera that lurches from the domestic to the universal, Kazushi Ono has identified tempi and textures that build to cumulative effect. Much of the singing is sincere, expressive, almost naïve in its beauty, particularly that of the male chorus and the two sopranos, Michaela Kaune (Leonore) and Karen Vourc'h (Marzelline). Sadly, one has to listen past the dental-surgery whirr of the Segways on which the singers ride about. (Segways? In the 24th century?) I predict pursed lips in Edinburgh. Not because of the Segways, the spaceship or the costumes that make everyone look like two-legged polyhedra. But because Fidelio isn't just about ideals of freedom and clemency. It's also about a gaoler's daughter whose little heart is broken.

On the previous night in Lyon, Thierry Escaich's taut first opera, Claude (Opéra de Lyon, Lyon ****), premiered to a storm of anti-gay-marriage protest outside the house (the current justice minister was in the audience) and rapturous applause within. Former justice minister Robert Badinter's libretto is a furious portrait of brutality and homophobia in the French penal system. Conducted by Jérémie Rhorer, Olivier Py's brilliantly choreographed production reiterated the violence and monotony of prison life, the deprivations, sexual frustrations and humiliations, and, in the three-tiered cells of Pierre-André Weitz's set, the desperate attempts of the prisoners to maintain their individuality. Claude (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) is a married man imprisoned for theft who falls in love, almost against his will, with Albin (counter-tenor Rodrigo Ferreira), and is sent to the guillotine. Constructed almost as a Passion, with extensive use of chorus and allusions to the soundworlds of Messiaen, Berg and Shostakovich, Claude is a bold, intelligent, concise work that deserves an international audience.

'Nabucco' (020-7304 4000) to 26 Apr; 'Fidelio'/'Claude' (opera-lyon.com) to Sat, and at the Edinburgh Festival in August

Critic's Choice

Paul Lewis plays the Brahms First Piano Concerto with Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes Schubert's Rosamunde Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No 8, at Lighthouse, Poole (Wed), Great Hall, Exeter (Thu), Town Hall, Cheltenham (Fri). Composer Michel van der Aa directs the world premiere of his multimedia opera Sunken Garden at London's Barbican, from Fri.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits