Giuseppe Verdi’s first big success was based on the biblical tale of Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), the Babylonian king who waged war against the Hebrews, proclaimed himself a God, and was struck by Jehovah, rendered insane. The conflicts of war and religion are the backbone of the dramatic development, but Andreas Homoki’s production ignores them completely. The stage contains one single object: an enormous monolith of green marble, which can rotate and slide, pushing the singers to the front of the stage, or providing a background. Nothing else, not even a chair. The Babylonian female characters wear early 19th-century ballgowns in the same green as the marble monolith (costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann), while the Jews are in 1940s beige outfits, looking like stereotypical members of the French Resistance. Nabucco is the only one in a military uniform. No Babylonian men are ever shown.

Michael Volle (Nabucco)
© Monika Rittershaus (2019)

Calling this staging “uninspiring” would be a euphemism: it is boring and irritating. Religion is completely absent, and so is war. When Nabucco regains his wits and leads his still faithful Babylonian soldiers against Abigaille’s army, his “soldiers” are unarmed Jews. Maybe the chorus forgot to change costumes? 

A little more care is shown towards the personal tragedies of the protagonists. The main subplot is about Nabucco's two daughters: Fenena, the youngest, falls in love with a Jewish hero and converts to Judaism, while Abigaille is driven by ambition and doesn’t hesitate to take the crown for herself when her father falls sick, and tries to squash the Jewish resistance with cruelty. Nabucco’s love and tenderness for his daughters is explored and described with some care by the director; unfortunately, one of the tools used for this exploration is the trite, overused trick of child doubles, two adorable little girls demurely skipping around and making Nabucco soft-hearted and teary-eyed.

There was one idea I liked. Abigaille, in a (very awkward, honestly) plot twist, finds out she’s not Nabucco’s legitimate daughter, but the child of a slave (perhaps fathered by Nabucco, but this point is left open); this revelation strengthens her determination, her political ambition and her cruelty. In the next scene the Babylonian elders and priests proclaim Abigaille queen, because Nabucco has lost his mind. This scene is portrayed as a dream: Abigaille, after the humiliation of finding out her true origins, imagines she is crowned Queen, with the Babylonian elders as chorus boys acclaiming her with jazz hands.

The Philharmonia Zürich was under the baton of veteran conductor Donato Renzetti, who gave an honest, exciting reading of the score. In my opinion Nabucco would need a lighter hand, to soften the marching band moments, but Renzetti’s rendition was true to the score and to the style. The evening was dominated by Anna Pirozzi’s spectacular Abigaille. The role is famously almost impossible to sing: it’s harsh, the tessitura is always high, but also needing a powerful lower register in places (“Prode guerrier”). Pirozzi’s voice is built for this role: her high notes are made of steel and are razor-sharp, they sound natural and effortless. She easily handled the agilities and chromatic scales, and managed to produce reasonable filati when required. Her grimace and general attitude were terrifying, her rage storming through the stage (I hardly recognised her at curtain call, when she came out with a relaxed, smiling face).

Nabucco was Lucio Gallo; his baritone showed some signs of wear, with an excessive vibrato at times, and some notes taken from below. The second part went better, and his “Dio di Giuda” was moving and elegant. Alexander Vinogradov sang Zaccaria, the Jewish Rabbi, with a very powerful bass. He had a tendency to rely on power more than anything else; his pronunciation, in particular, was painful, his vowels all sounded almost the same; the general impression was a bit sloppy. Fenena was Alisa Kolosova, who also tended to rely on the power of her well-centred mezzo more than on elegance and style. The voice was beautiful, but her breath technique didn’t seem on point, breathing every couple of words. Omar Kobiljak gave a good interpretation of Ismaele, the Jewish hero, his tenor is light and well supported, and he showed good chemistry with Kolosova.

As always, in Nabucco, the last words are for the chorus, which is one of the main protagonists of this opera, and the Chor der Oper Zürich gave a very good performance. In particular the finale of act 2 was remarkable (“S’appressan gl’istanti”): precise and powerful.  In “Va’, pensiero” Renzetti chose a very loud orchestral tone for the introduction, but the chorus did a fantastic job, and my Italian heart trembled at hearing such a good rendition of our true national anthem.