WhatsOnStage Logo

Nabucco (Birmingham Hippodrome)

Verdi's first great operatic success in a contemporary staging by Welsh National Opera

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
WhatsOnStage logo

Verdi's early Old Testament epic Nabucco may be the best-known of Welsh National Opera's current trilogy of operas based on faith (it's flanked by Schoenberg and Glass), but in the wrong hands it can easily seem dramatically and musically turgid.

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Abigaille) and David Kempster (Nabucco) in Nabucco (WNO)
© Bill Cooper

There was certainly little danger of either problem on this occasion, though on the former front this came at a price. Xian Zhang's rapier-sharp, vital conducting seized attention from the first downbeat and sustained energy throughout, but Rudolf Frey's hyperactive modern-dress production is more problematic. Loaded to the gunnells with glitz (think rhinestone gloves, seas of black feathers and showers of glitter) it seems frustratingly unfocused – though its depiction of exiled Hebrews is politically non-specific enough to avoid the sort of furore that's engulfed the Metropolitan Opera this week.

Despite the incoherence and kitsch surrounding them, the singers inhabit their roles with blazing conviction. One in particular: at times I had to remind myself that the opera wasn't actually called Abigaille, for Mary Elizabeth Williams owns the stage from her first appearance, snapping from snarling venom to saccharine coquetry in the flicker of a perfectly made-up eye.

Crowned regent, she exudes an imperious vulgarity as magnetic as it's repellent; perhaps the showgirl-style hoofing required of her in the act two cabaletta pushed this a shade too far, though the cavatina which preceded it brought her most impressive singing of the evening.

Elsewhere, however, the voice was noticeably less imposing than her physical presence. The basic sound is big lyric rather than dramatic, lacking bite in the lower-middle register where so much of this music lies.

"Sellars-esque hand-dance routines"

If I couldn't take my eyes of Williams, I couldn't take my ears off her rival. In a cast otherwise made up of essentially lyric voices who occasionally sounded overparted, Justina Gringyte's fragile-looking Fenena cleaved through the lot with real dramatic blade. I could scarcely believe she was the same singer I'd heard two years ago as Cherubino. Eboli or Amneris must surely be in her sights.

In the title-role, WNO regular David Kempster initally seemed a little underpowered but gained in stature as the evening progressed. The pivotal third-act power-struggle between him and Williams was absolutely spellbinding, and all the more potent for being unimpeded by over-direction.

Also on the light side was Robin Lyn Evans's Ismaele, though this worked rather well in terms of characterising this relatively thankless role. Clad in hipster glasses and cardigan, this bookish, introverted young man was clearly a fish out of water from the outset. Zaccaria was sung with formidable zeal by Kevin Short, exuding gravitas despite being saddled with leading the bulk of Peter Sellars-esque hand-dance routines which were foisted on the chorus.

The WNO Chorus made some thrilling sounds, especially in the final hymn to Jehovah, though were surprisingly untidy in the famous Chorus of Hebrew Slaves (and I wasn't at all keen on the raising of the house lights for this). Plenty to enjoy overall, then – provided you're not allergic to sparkles and glitter.


Tagged in this Story