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Nabucco, Royal Opera house, London


Topical references in programme notes printed in advance are risky, and Boris Berezovsky’s miserable demise has made Covent Garden’s essayist - for whom he represents the quintessential pampered exile - look silly.

But it wasn’t a bad idea for this production to focus on the nature of exile, nor was it inappropriate for it to be updated to today. There’s no reason why Verdi’s patriotic opera - whose ‘Va pensiero’ became Italy’s national anthem - should only be portrayed in terms of what conductor Nicola Luisotti describes as ‘beards, old priests, old Babylon’, because there’s no shortage now of oppressed and exiled groups.

On the other hand, there’s no reason why this moderately complicated story should be made as impenetrable as it is here by director Daniele Abbado (son of conductor Claudio). Alison Chitty’s set for the first two acts consists of stone blocks like the tombs on the Mount of Olives.

Behind these a screen rises, onto which film of this same scene is projected; problems start when one tries to decide how the densely-peopled action in the film relates to the live action below on stage. Since Abbado’s camera is seldom still, the eye is constantly distracted.

The costuming of the crowd in Jerusalem has a Balkan feel, while that of the crowd in Babylon suggests office-workers, but both crowds stand motionless as trees, as do the principals: Abbado’s ideas about acting don’t extend beyond the occasional wave of an arm. Verdi’s story may focus on King Nabucco’s madness and religious change of heart, yet it’s powered by the love affair between his daughter Fenena and the Jewish Ismaele.

But one has no sense of any such relationship between Marianna Pizzolato and Andrea Carè, who play them here, nor of princess Abigaille’s (sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska) rivalrous love for Ismaele. Events seem to succeed each other arbitrarily, and there’s even one horrible moment when Auschwitz is referenced, as the Jewish women prepare for execution.

In the face of these obstacles the cast do what they can, with baritone Vitalij Kowaljow and soprano Marianna Pizzolato powerfully characterising Zaccaria and Fenena. But Leo Nucci’s Nabucco is underpowered both vocally and dramatically: it will be fascinating to see what Placido Domingo makes of this part, when he takes over later in the run.

Only when the superb Monastyrska commands the stage does drama take wing, while the excellent chorus give their all.