Itʼs got all the elements of a contemporary political thriller: Religious war in the Middle East. Imperiled refugees. A tyrant on the verge of being overthrown. Given the current state of world affairs, Nabucco seems more relevant than ever. Unless youʼre José Cura, in which case itʼs a grand canvas for colorful singing, costumes and sets, but with no references, aspirations or impact beyond the stage. And even there, itʼs largely two-dimensional.

Martin Bárta (Nabucco) © Patrik Borecký
Martin Bárta (Nabucco)
© Patrik Borecký

For nearly a quarter-century the Argentinian tenor has been an electrifying presence on world opera stages. He was already singing in houses throughout Italy when he won Plácido Domingoʼs Operalia competition in 1994. Three years later he rose to international prominence in his debut performance of Otello with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in Turin, which was broadcast worldwide. But unlike other vocalists who branch out late in their careers, Cura always planned to be more than a singer. He began his musical studies in conducting and composing, both of which he still actively pursues. And when the Rijeka Opera House in Croatia invited him to create an original production in 2007, he became a stage director as well.

Eleven years and 12 productions later, Cura offers a polished and experienced production team with his steady collaborator, Italian director, costume and stage designer Silvia Collazuol. Which makes their treatment of Nabucco all the more puzzling. Asked about his interpretation before the première, Cura said what most interested him was the tension between Nabucco and his two daughters. Both defy him – Fenena by converting to Judaism, Abigaille by usurping his throne – which means the king of the civilized world isnʼt even king in his own home. But thereʼs little evidence of that onstage. Instead, the opera plays out as a conventional costume drama, a straight slice of Biblical history. 

Prague State Opera Chorus © Patrik Borecký
Prague State Opera Chorus
© Patrik Borecký

In that respect, itʼs spectacular. Cura designed the set, a forced-perspective trapezoid that initially frames the action and pulls in the audience. Over the course of the evening it rotates and sheds its skin to suggest outdoor settings, enhanced by bold thematic backlighting. Collazuol cited Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky as her inspiration for the costumes, also done in bright primary colors that reinforce the narrative and characters. This can be breathtaking, as when Abigaille makes her first entrance looking like a scarlet sorceress. Or it can be tedious, as in the unrelenting blue/good guys, red/bad guys, magenta/military configurations. Still, it all works together, and as a thoughtful and integrated fusion of sets, lighting and costumes, itʼs brilliant. 

Kristina Kolar (Abigaille) and Martin Bárta (Nabucco) © Patrik Borecký
Kristina Kolar (Abigaille) and Martin Bárta (Nabucco)
© Patrik Borecký

Why, then, the static presentation? At times it seemed as if the singers had been given no direction at all. Almost every exchange and aria was of the “park and bark” school: Come on or come down, hit your spot, stay rooted there and sing away. Dramatic necessity forced some interaction between Nabucco and Abigaille in the third act; otherwise the singers were mostly frozen in place, sometimes in group arrangements like a tableau. For the finale, as if to prevent any stray movement, everyone was forced to drop to their knees. It was in some ways reminiscent of Baroque opera, where singers were expected to face the audience, remain stationary and look and sound good.

Much of the singing in Nabucco is done by the chorus, and one could hardly ask for better than the State Opera Chorus, which is consistently outstanding. The ensemble had some riveting moments in this production, particularly in the first and third acts. But there were also a number of uncharacteristic rough edges, as if some parts were underrehearsed. Given that Cura spent ten years in a chorus before striking out as a soloist, this was especially surprising.

Martin Bárta (Nabucco), Kristina Kolar (Abigaille) and chorus © Patrik Borecký
Martin Bárta (Nabucco), Kristina Kolar (Abigaille) and chorus
© Patrik Borecký

Among the cast, Kristina Kolar stole the show as Abigaille – intense, aggrieved and passionate in her delivery. Martin Bárta was a credible Nabucco, earning generous applause for his lament and conversion in chains to open the final act. But he was overshadowed by Roman Vocel as Zaccaria, a commanding figure who owned the stage, even when he was about to lose his head late in the second act. The State Opera Orchestra sounded a bit lost – not unusual, perhaps, for a group that hasnʼt played in its home hall for two years, while repairs and reconstruction of the 130-year old State Opera drag on. After a slow start, conductor Andreas Sebastian Weiser set a brisk pace and matched the colors onstage, but in general the music had the same deficiencies in drama and depth.

If you like your opera in a bubble, this oneʼs a beauty. But for relevance and thrills, it might be better to pick up the morning paper.