Opera; NABUCCO New Theatre, Cardiff

Ever since their early days, the Welsh National Opera has had a soft spot for Verdi's Nabucco, perhaps because its choruses reminded the singers of home: "Va pensiero" - "Go, thought, on golden wings and light on the slopes and hills where the gentle breezes of our native soil blow soft and fragrant." The boos which greeted Tim Albery's new production at the New Theatre, Cardiff on Tuesday were the pained outburst of the bereaved parent. He and his designer Antony McDonald probably should have taken their bow with coats over their heads and a police escort.

Was it that bad? The trouble with director's theatre in early romantic opera is that it so often takes the messy and implausible plots as trigger for a whole salvo of disjointed imagery and symbolism, not noticing that the style is essentially simple and easily smothered by visual clutter - the funny hats, the orange and silver wigs, the luminous gloves, the fatigues and kalashnikovs and all the other stock-in-trade of the modern producer out to make his statement about the News at Ten. I should hate to have to psychoanalyse Albery's Nabucco, but if I say that the climactic moment when the Assyrian king is struck down by a thunderbolt looked like The Wizard of Oz reshot at Entebbe airport, it will give some idea of the muddle to which, in the end, the audience was probably objecting.

What this opening night needed, more than production icons, was a firmer theatrical hand on the cast. Janice Cairns's Abigaille, though fluent and affecting at its best (for instance in the lyrical "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" - the work is done in Italian) lacked presence and venom and flounced self-consciously in her designer guerrilla decolletage. Clare Shearer, substituting at short notice for Sara Fulgoni, was an understandably colourless Fenena; and the Zaccaria, Willard White, with all his virtues of quiet dignity and dark, strong vocalism, hardly looked or sounded like an Old Testament prophet in the Captivity. The high priest needs to balance Nabucco himself as he ascends rapidly towards megalomania. Jonathan Summers drew this psychological parabola well in the circumstances and he produced much the best solo Verdi singing while apparently doubling as Che Guevara and Pirandello's Henry IV.

There were decent contributions too, from Gwyn Hughes Jones in the token tenor role of the Hebrew traitor Ismaele and Anthony Stuart Lloyd as the High Priest of Baal, alias Goering in a red tinsel tiara. But the real stars, as they should be in this piece, were the chorus, singing Verdi's superbly elemental lines with the only deep affection one sensed all evening. "Va pensiero", as ever, was moving and restrained; but nearly all the chorus work was excellent. Carlo Rizzi conducted with style, but still needs to tighten rhythm and trim round the edges of the orchestral ensemble. This will come. But what we have to look at is another matter.

n Booking (01222 878879) to 6 Oct

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