Opera Holland Park's splendid new tent turned big top for the purposes of their provocative season opener, Verdi's Nabucco. Our first glimpse, though, was somewhat undercut by the sight of countless pieces of abandoned luggage extending across the entire stage. As Verdi's prelude unfolded and the iconic Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was first heard in the orchestra (under the conductor Brad Cohen), a dispossessed people came to claim them. As they turned to face us, their clothes and demeanour so familiar from countless newsreel images, a group of their children read out the first of four Old Testament quotations: "Behold I will give this city unto Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire."
The force of that opening chorus, and the physical power of the stage blockings, made for an arresting start to director John Fulljames' high-octane production. But the real kicker was yet to come: the arrival of Nabucco and his conquering Babylonians. Their circus had come to town replete with brutish clowns, jugglers, a band of their own (Verdi's on-stage banda), and the king himself fooling no one with his childish lion's disguise. He was, of course, the Ringmaster.
You could feel the out-and-out dismay from certain quarters of the audience - it was, after all, a quite unexpected conceit - but love it or loathe it (I personally loved it) the metaphor worked. It chimed with the brash excesses of the score; it highlighted the vulgarity of the Babylonians, oppressors masquerading as entertainers; it underlined the humiliation of the Jews. Hebrew slaves indeed, caged but unbowed for their great chorus.
The communal fervour of the opera really came across. Just as Verdi pulled out all the stops to bring us "on message", so too did this company. Young virile voices like Andrew Rees's Ismaele and Paolo Pechioli's Zaccaria - a sonorous bass marinated well beyond its years - gave us the requisite "arena" delivery. Maria Pollicina's Abigaille may have seen better days - the voice is now pretty shredded in the middle register - but for a woman in commando gear, ammunition belt and high heels, a two-octave plunge into bass baritone territory needs to be scary - and was. David Wakeham's impressive Nabucco gave us the dignity and distinction that his faithless daughter lacked. His was ultimately the voice of reason in an audacious and ballsy evening.
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