Six years ago, I was bowled over hearing Amartuvshin Enkhbat for the first time in person. It was the final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and the Mongolian baritone blew the audience away with his huge voice. Now his Royal Opera debut, in the title role in Verdi’s Nabucco, offers the chance to reassess those first impressions in the context of a staged production. Headline news – I’m still bowled over. His is a lavishly upholstered voice, dark and velvety and simply enormous, riding the orchestra with ease. In “Dio, di Giuda”, the addled biblical king’s prayer to the Hebrews’ god, his legato rolled in luxuriously long phrases and the ensuing cabaletta closed with a thrilling, interpolated high A flat. 

Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Nabucco)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Yet Enkhbat did not win that 2015 Cardiff Singer title. Dramatically he was, I wrote at the time, “a blank canvas” with little emotional differentiation between the characters he was singing and the common consensus was that it cost him the top prize. Perhaps he would fare better on stage. Sadly, Daniele Abbado’s dull 2013 production does nothing to help him. When the king audaciously enters the Temple of Solomon, Enkhbat merely plants a foot on a small pile of books, not exactly something to get the Hebrews quaking in their boots. And Alison Chitty’s wide open set makes sudden arrivals on the scene nearly impossible, so Enkhbat stands around looking confused as his daughter Fenena prepares to be killed rather than dashing in on the score’s cue to save her life after his sudden religious conversion. Vocally, he’s the real deal but dramatically the jury is still out.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Nabucco) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Abigaille)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Abbado’s fifty shades of grey staging remains a puzzle. Large granite blocks towering in the sand are a striking visual reference to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and a video backdrop, often shot from above the stage, gives the impression that the action is busier than it really is. The Chorus – sometimes Hebrews, sometimes Babylonians (apart from the occasional tallit you can rarely differentiate them) – are largely bystanders, even in scenes where they are not required. The 1930s costumes and the Babylonian soldiers separating the Jewish children from their mothers promise something more searching than Abbado delivers. The trappings of power are represented by giant heads sculpted from chicken wire. The powerful scene when Nabucco’s mind clears and he vows to save Fenena is undercut with the sudden comic dismantling of the towering idol that has been propped up by extras behind him, drawing a loud snigger from someone in the audience. Yet there are telling moments, notably the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves where the stage is stripped bare and the singers are huddled close together in the sand, allowed to just sing. And with the Royal Opera Chorus on stunning form, it really dealt a blow to the solar plexus.

The Royal Opera Chorus
© ROH | Bill Cooper

This evening was to have been Anna Netrebko’s much postponed role debut as Abigaille, Nabucco’s vengeful, power-hungry daughter. Cited travel restrictions have delayed that debut even longer, so we had the return of Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, who first sang the role here when this production was new. She had a ragged start, laden with vibrato and sounding hollow at the bottom of her chest register and her laser-like top appeared missing in action. But Monastyrska’s an intelligent artist and the voice settled. She began her aria “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” with admirable softness and she finally hit her stride and brought out the big guns in the cabaletta “Salgo già del trono aurato”, including ornamentation on the repeat. Vasilisa Berzhanskaya and Najmiddin Mavlyanov impressed as Fenena and Ismaele in their brief moments in the spotlight but the best complete performance of the evening came from Alexander Vinogradov as Zaccaria. A true basso cantante, he spun gorgeous lines in the prophet’s prayers, singing with real nobility, “Tu sul labbro” was wonderfully supported by the cellos.

Alexander Vinogradov (Zaccaria)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

This performance marked the 75th anniversary of the company and it was fitting that one of their most loyal servants, Renato Balsadonna – Chorus Director of the Royal Opera Chorus from 2004-16 – replaced the indisposed Daniel Oren in the pit. Balsadonna conducted a cracking account of the overture and the attack of the orchestra’s playing throughout the evening was superb, making one marvel afresh at the raw power of Verdi’s first big hit, even if the action on stage remained stolidly underwhelming.