Verdi’s third opera Nabucco tells the story of the destruction of the First Temple and the enslavement of the Jewish people by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Though this was the work that essentially launched Verdi’s career, it is not particularly outstanding: the libretto by Temistocle Solera is flimsy at best in its construction of plot and characters, and the music, while pleasant, is often generic. Though the Hungarian State Opera’s cast delivered superbly, showing all the beauty that can possibly be found in the score, its production could boast of little more than stunning visuals, resulting in a very mixed performance.

Conductor Gergely Kesselyák commanded both pit and stage and, musically, it was undeniably a triumph. His account of the score was well-paced, vigorous, the orchestra playing with unbridled energy and an appropriately dark tone. In the title role, Alexandru Agache sang with a commanding, resonant baritone that easily thundered over the crowd, but softened to a heartrending tone in “Deh, perdona” and “Dio di Giuda”, unquestionably the highlights of Agache’s performance. Szilvia Rálik’s steely soprano was ideal for the demanding part of Abigaille; although her lower register lacks power, her cutting tone, solid high notes and intense singing made up for that completely, especially her fiery cabaletta “Salgo già del trono aurato”.

Singing Zaccaria, Gábor Bretz’s noble, inky bass-baritone felt underpowered at times (his struggle to project hampered by the staging), but he came into his own after Part 1, his rendition of “Tu sul labbro” deeply moving. Erika Gál was arresting as Fenena, her smooth, mellifluous mezzo delightful even in the small role the opera allows her, and decidedly fierce in her short clash with Abigaille in Act 2. Szabolcs Brickner’s bright tenor and passionate singing made for an appealing Ismaele. Ferenc Kristofori as Abdallo and Ferenc Cserhalmi as the High Priest of Baal gave solid performances in their minor roles.

The chorus has a considerably large part to play in Nabucco and the chorus of the HSO certainly lived up to the task, their performance as the enslaved Israelites deeply moving, especially in a delicately phrased “Va, pensiero”.

Kesselyák, however, unfortunately fell short as a director. His production, originally shown at the National Theatre of Miskolc in 2013, debuted at the Erkel Theatre in 2015. Its concept frames the story of the opera as one depicting the changing of epochs (symbolized by different zodiac signs), showing fortune’s wheel turn as former victors are vanquished and the Jewish people are restored from slavery to freedom. While such a concept could lend coherence to the opera’s fragmental, disjointed narrative, unfortunately the production did not manage to give Nabucco much profundity or make sense of its characters. Much of that failure can be attributed to the campness that seemed to be the governing principle of Kesselyák’s directing of singers and chorus, their over-the-top gestures ridiculous and hollow (and in the case of the chorus of Israelites cowering on the floor of the Temple before Nabucco’s arrival, bordering on tasteless). Campness seemed to be central for Janó Papp’s pseudo-historical costumes as well, heavily reminiscent of the visuals of some 70s Met productions, especially when it came to the Babylonians, though that splendour proved quite effective with Nabucco and Abigaille.

The number of times the blocking proved to be detrimental to the singers was even more vexing: from the chorus in the opening scene singing on the sides of the auditorium, resulting in bad acoustics, to the final scene being sung with the entire ensemble’s back turned towards the audience and Zaccaria being placed so far back that his last line was practically inaudible. Edit Zeke’s abstract set combined with a brilliant lightning design does provide a stunning backdrop for the stage action though, and there are a number of striking, greatly memorable stage images, particularly the opening scene as the Jewish people, clad in white, holding candles in the dark temple, implore God for mercy and Nabucco’s prayer and return to sanity, similarly playing with contrasts of light and darkness. But that in itself is not quite enough to make a good production, and this performance, bright on its surface but empty underneath, does not make for a satisfying theatrical experience.