Nabucco opened the season at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, marking the first time in the company’s 100-year history that Verdi’s opera has been performed. Directed by Keith Warner, known for his often flamboyant productions, and conducted by Andrea Battistoni, the opera was warmly received by a delighted audience.

Nabucco © 2013, Bernd Uhlig
Nabucco
© 2013, Bernd Uhlig

The opera tells the story of the Hebrews’ defeat and exile to Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Set in the early Victorian era, the production managed to be lavish and grim at once. The Hebrews, led by Zaccaria, wore black frocks and suits; the Babylonians, led first by Nabucco and then by Abigaille, his adopted daughter, were arrayed in copper and black. The setting was minimal: a tower to denote Babylon, a printing press, a square wooden building to act as both Hebrew temple and execution scaffold, an army of wooden chairs. The suggestion that the battle between the spiritual and the temporal is never-ending was prevalent. Indeed, an elderly man watched over the proceedings, changing sets as need be, removing jackets, shuffling chairs. Watching. Waiting.

The singers outdid themselves. Anna Smirnova, as Abigaille, the work’s true villain, peeled the wallpaper not once, but many, many times. Her hatred of the Hebrews and her rage on finding out that she was born one of them leads to many arias and ensembles of vengeance. Smirnova’s voice is strong and supple; she held her numerous high Cs with aplomb, going sharp only once, during the final quintet in Act II. As her supposed sister Fenena, Jana Kuracová sang with a light, supple soprano. Her final prayer was delivered with grace and dignity. Smaller and slighter than Smirnova, Kuracová was an excellent foil to the former’s bloodthirsty intensity. Her grace and her sympathy for the Hebrews allows Fenena to be overpowered by Abigaille’s homicidal hatred, but nonetheless, there was no doubt which sister had the greater spirit.

Their mutual love interest, Ismaele, was sung by Korean tenor Yosep Kang with a beautiful, clear tone. Though perhaps not singing one of opera’s greatest tenor roles, Kang gave a committed performance and received strong ovations for his crystal-clear tone. Zaccaria, the Jewish high priest, was sung by Vitalij Kowaljow. His bass was deeply resonant, filling the house as he called down the judgments of God upon Nabucco. His Italian diction was clear and precise, and intensity admirable. And Johan Reuter, in the title role, was mesmerizing. He ran the gamut from confident, swaggering king to deranged blasphemer to helpless penitent with a sweep of emotion that was fantastically carried by his clean baritone. Nabucco’s prayer to the God of the Hebrews was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

Indeed, it was in Act IV that the production outdid itself. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, one of the most famous of Verdi’s choruses and one that comes with many legends attached, is a stirring hymn to freedom, and the orchestra and chorus of the Deutsche Oper handled it well. Though the chorus was not without its problems in the evening (an inability to pronounce Italian properly being the chief fault), “Va, pensiero” was hypnotic. At each swell in the music, the chorus held aloft long strips of canvas printed with phrases in Hebrew, which were then reverently laid along the front of the stage. As they were then led off to their doom, one of the guards took a book of scripture from a chorus member. This book passed through their hands until it reached the guard watching over Nabucco, who curled on the steps to read it while Nabucco prayed. This, then, was the means by which Nabucco was converted. When he rallied his soldiers, the book was brought to him; he read it during a musical interlude, and wielded it for the rest of the action. It was the book, held up by Nabucco, that caused the ropes being placed around the Hebrews’ necks to fall, useless. And it was with the book that Nabucco knelt at Zaccaria’s feet to beg forgiveness. As Abigaille came in, trailing propaganda broadsheets and with her spirit broken, Zaccaria wrapped his prayer shawl about the humbled king and told him to serve God. And as the set closed around the characters, the elderly man who had watched it all walked to join his people, glancing at Abigaille as he passed, and it was then that they all realized just who this old man really was. Abigaille fell against the doors, unforgiven, and the lights went down.

It was a stirring, powerful conclusion to a beautiful performance.