Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 2: Verdi and Nabucco

Verdi's Nabucco is the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, more or less as per the version in the Book of Daniel except that there, of course, there is no question of female succession, or indeed any GURLS at all that I can see.

But in the Verdi version there is a complex plot involving Hebrew slaves, hostages, daughters legitimate and (as it turns out) illegitimate with competing claims to their father's throne, star-crossed lovers, the gods Baal and Jehovah, and a wonderful moment when Nabucco the King, declaring himself in a moment of hubris to be greater than either Baal or Jehovah and therefore the one true god, is immediately knocked flat by something from the heavens that, in this production, looks like a cross between a shower of blood and a bolt of lightning and made me think, by word-association rather than logic, of that wonderful phrase 'blood-boltered' from, I think, Macbeth.

Which Nabucco, after it hits him, also is: smeared and clotted with the stuff, writhing across the floor in a pool of blood that is not his own and apparently not human.

This instant manifestation of divine vengeance does not, amazingly, kill him, but he does go mad (as you would), which is what this William Blake painting of him is about:

And Blake, as you can see, was following his King James Version very closely: '... he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws.' (Daniel 4:33)

But everything turns out all right in the end; the madness passes, the lovers are reunited, and the illegitimate daughter and usurping queen takes poison and dies, but not before apologising first. You could do an absolute thumper of a feminist reading of this opera, and I would, but I've got too much marking to do.

In this production they use in one of the sets a truly bizarre and unfathomably naff poster-art portrait that Saddam Hussein had done; he fancies himself as the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar, here shooting with a bow and arrow at missiles, helicopters and warships:

As as Commenter 43 says here, 'Boy, you can't swing a dead cat in the Middle East without hitting some nutcase claiming to be some past or present biblical character.'

Verdi wrote this opera in 1841, still in his twenties and devastated by the sudden deaths of, in quick succession, his wife and both his young children. The most famous tune in it, and indeed one of opera's most easily-recognised, is 'Va pensiero', aka the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, which was one of the reasons why Nabucco was an instant hit; this choral piece was co-opted immediately as an anthem of freedom by the fragmented Italian states then labouring under repressive Austrian rule, and 'Va pensiero' became quite by accident an anthem of the Risorgimento.

Director David Freeman has said of this production, 'There are three powerful periods in which to set a piece of theatre: when the author sets it, when the author wrote it, and when the audience watches it ... We are playing Nabucco both "then" and "now". Trouble in 600BC was to be found in Babylon and Jerusalem.'

But to my mind this production's mixing-up of historical periods also includes a third: the costuming of the Hebrew slaves in clothes that are very reminiscent of photographs and footage from the early 1940s of the Jews on their way to the gas chambers. And the staging manages to add more than a suggestion that contemporary Israel has made Hebrew slaves, as it were, out of the Palestinians.

Anyway. Here's the review I filed on Sunday morning.

"NABUCCO: State Opera of SA
Festival Theatre
Until November 18

This production of Nabucco is everything opera is supposed to be: dramatic, spectacular and enthralling.

'Nabucco' tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Jerusalem, his defeat and capture of the Hebrews, his descent into madness and his final redemption. But the power of the story lies in the way that personal relationships, both familial and romantic, are intertwined with stories of politics, religion and war. This Shakespearean interweaving of different stories provides a solid and dramatic basis for Verdi's energetic, passionate music.

The chorus of Nabucco, directed here to hair's-breadth precision by chorus master Timothy Sexton, is almost a character in its own right and has some beautiful music to sing, including the famous 'Va, pensiero' and a less well-known but even more glorious a capella chorus, part of the ensemble piece 'Immenso Jehovah', in the last act. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted with passion and energy by Nicholas Braithwaite, is its usual assured and polished self.

The production is dominated by Maria Pollicina's magnificent performance as Abigaille, Nabucco's usurping daughter and the jealous sister of Fenena, the rightful heiress to Nabucco's throne. In this musically and emotionally difficult and exhausting role, Pollicina is flawless. Not only does she have absolute confidence and control vocally, but she is also an excellent actor, dominating the stage and holding the breathless attention of the audience.

The scenes Pollicina shares with Barry Anderson as her father Nabucco, now mad and broken, are among the most emotionally intense and engaging that I have ever seen onstage. Anderson's performance is also superb, in a complex role that director David Freeman presents as a kind of cross between Hitler, King Lear and Saddam Hussein but that Anderson somehow, miraculously, manages to make sympathetic.

Abigaille's sister Fenena, the gentle love interest, is played with great dignity and sweetness by Adelaide's Elizabeth Campbell.

If this production has a weakness, it's in the performances of two of the male leads, with Adrian Dwyer as Fenena's lover Ismaele sounding and looking strained and hesitant. Julian Konstantinov as Zaccaria the Hebrew prophet has the requisite sonority and gravitas that basses so often bring to figures of authority, but persistent pitch problems in such an exposed and major part tend to spoil the effect of his impressive stage presence, and in one or two places make life hard for some of the other singers.

The leads have strong support from local performers in smaller roles, particularly Deborah Caddy as Zaccaria's sister Anna.

Freeman's direction is imaginative and brave, using space and silence as effectively as crowds and voices in creating an overall effect of violent emotion, violent action, and a plot rushing towards its conclusion.

Dan Potra's imposing, dramatic design provides some moments of high drama all by itself, with crumbling walls, fallen idols and the violent, bloody wrath of God descending on the deluded Nabucco. The sets and costumes frankly mix up historical periods in such a way as to suggest the horrors and dangers of dictatorship and violence in any era, and this works surprisingly well, especially in the contrast between the glittering, sinister chain-mail of the Assyrian guards and the way the drab dress of their Hebrew captives quietly suggests the photographs and footage of Jewish refugees from the 1930s and 40s.

One reason this opera is so gripping is that it contains so many great themes: power, hubris, war, jealousy, star-crossed love and redemption.

All these things are sumptuously gift-wrapped by this production."

There's a brilliant, but very long and detailed, article about Verdi by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross (see blogroll) here. Even if you don't read any of the rest of it, do at least read the final paragraph, and the endnote.


Mark Lawrence said...

I've often wondered about that Blake. Thanks for the explanation. And for your insight into Nabucco.

With little chance to go to the opera at the moment, and only having listened to excerpts (like the 'Slave's Chorus'), I appreciate getting the full picture of what the opera's about.

How about you write 'The cheat's guide to understanding opera without going to the theatre'?

elsewhere said...

Thanks, that was another lovely post about opera. Perhaps you could write some Stephen Fry style guide for opera dummies (if one hasn't already been written).

Confession: as a teenager, I was able to attend Australia Opera productions through a scheme called student access, whereby we could see Sat matinees for $4, often in the standing room section. I often went just to hang out with certain boys (who were probably gay). In some ways, I was probably thrown into the deep end with opera and didn't get that much out of it. My favourite production was _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, which featured a young Anthony Warlow as Puck _with hair_.

I often felt I didn't appreciate this opportunity enough. My mother was highly envious, having been brought up on the wrong side of the tracks but desparate to gain access to the world of opera, the arts etc (which she later did by getting a subscription herself - obv having married into a better side of the tracks), so encouraged us to follow her passions. I was never that great a fan of opera myself, tho regret being too ill to see an open-air opera in Central Park when I was in NY this year. But I suspect that people like myself would enjoy an educative (or re-educative) guide to opera-watching.

Back to the marking!

elsewhere said...

oops -- cancel that 'desparate'!

wendy said...

thank you for the review of Nabucco on the blog. I have just returned hom from seeing this marvellous opera and production tonight. This is how opera should be and we were blown away by the performance by maria Pollicina in particular. The mixing of the time frames and references was very successful in highlighting the universal and very current themes.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Mark and El, on the Cheat's Guide -- it's been done, alas, by (at least) Victor Borge in My Favourite Intervals, and more recently and locally by John Cargher in How to Enjoy Opera Without Really Trying, my two opera reference books. (Those familiar with them will know how funny this is.) It may be time for a new one, though. A Stephen Fry type guide would have to be as knowledgeable about opera as Fry is about poetry, which I most certainly am not.

El, the operatic (or even just classical) style of singing is an acquired taste, I think. Especially in a language that one does not speak.

Wendy, it was lovely to read your comment. I agree that they did the 'contemporary significance' thing very well, without being too heavy-handed about it, and that Pollicina was amazing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Nabucco, but I have heard Maria Pollicina before in concert in the United States . . . something she did in connection with the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC . . . and she was remarkable. Her voice soared above a boys choir and an orchestra for some thrilling music-making. I can't wait to hear her again. Thanks for the review. You are a wonderful writer.