The biblical origin of Nabucco has done the opera few favours. In the 19th century Nabucodonosor, as it was originally titled (Nebuchadnezzar in its Anglicised form), fell foul of an English edict about portraying religious figures on the stage, while in our own times it has attracted some wild and wacky productions keen to drag it into the melee of modern Middle Eastern politics.
Not surprisingly, Nabucco does not get performed often (only two previous stagings by the Royal Opera and those soon dropped). But here for the Verdi bicentenary is a new production, shared with La Scala, Milan, and probably planned all along as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo, the world’s newly favourite baritone, who will join the cast in a couple of weeks’ time.
It is a strangely muted affair. The director, Daniele Abbado, wants to draw parallels with cases of religious hatred through the centuries, but not so clearly that anybody might be offended. A large band of exiles in indeterminate 20th-century dress fills the stage, but nothing kicks any life into them – not the high priest’s implacable thundering, not even the young Verdi’s blazingly aggressive music. Alison Chitty’s designs come in 50 shades of grey (a shame Nabucco offers little scope for titillation) and the main props are some coffin-shaped boxes, like a Holocaust memorial. For reasons that are obscure an abstract film shows them dancing a sort of waltz while Abigaille is singing her big aria.
The soprano, Liudmyla Monastyrska, might want to have a word about that. Her fearless singing is by far the best thing about the performance and distracting attention from her is a crime. Here is a singer who positively revels in the famously fearsome role, delivering not just its Old Testament fury, but also a fine line in expressive elegance. As Nabucco, Leo Nucci sounds elderly beyond the demands of the part, though his clear Italian is a pleasure when some of the cast sound as if they come from the Tower of Babel language school. Vitalij Kowaljow is a restrained Zaccaria, and the warm-voiced Marianna Pizzolato and Andrea Carè deal well enough with Fenena and Ismaele. The conductor, Nicola Luisotti, leads a dynamic performance. Perhaps Domingo will be able to add the essential colour this production lacks.