Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco premiered at La Scala in 1842 when the composer, at just 29, was just beginning to launch the string of 26 operas that would secure his pole position in the annals of opera. Drawing on a biblical story allowed the young composer to capitalise on both the ferocity of an emotional drama and his own strong leaning towards pageantry. Further, he could turn to history as a means to comment on the struggles of the occupied Italian states.

Anna Smirnova (Abigaille) and Michael Volle (Nabucco)
© Monika Rittershaus

In Temistocle Solera’s libretto, Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Assyrians, hopes to rid the Hebrews from his kingdom. As such, the opera is rife with allusions to a patriotic urgency of the Risorgimento, namely, of liberation from foreign rule, and consolidation of multiple smaller states into the single Kingdom of Italy. As a character, Nabucco is both tyrant and warrior, but also a devoted father to his two daughters, Fenena and Abigaille, an attribute this new Andreas Homoki production prominently underscores. As any good yarn would have it, Fenena is in love with this enemy’s noble son, Ismaele. Worse, her own sister shares that passion. When Abigaille finds her affection unrequited, and that her sister is Ismaele’s beloved instead, she tries to usurp their father's crown. Once it is revealed, however, that she is not Nabucco’s natural daughter, but is adopted, she faces a two-fold humiliation – neither royal blood, nor object of Ismaele’s affections – and takes her own life.

That the Hebrews’ very first chorus mourns the loss of their “festive furnishings” (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti”) seems oddly out of place, given Wolfgang Gussmann’s relentlessly spartan stage decoration: a monumental green-marble block that suffices as the singular stage element throughout. Whether as a barrier between the warring parties, a suggestion of whirling confusion, or even as a simple blockade, it ran almost the full width or depth of the stage. It could divide left from right, but also do a 360° at the rotating centre. In one particularly threatening scene, the block even ventured flat out towards the audience, forcing the protagonists downstage, and thereby making the tragedy of events as inescapably present, much like the frontal figures of a 19th-century mourning picture. Granted, the green giant echoed Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza's sumptuous 19th-century costumes, whose bell skirts, tight bodices and full sleeves for the woman at court were in the same marbled green. But “the block” was a little too contrived and omnipresent to not overshadow the production.

Anna Smirnova, Michael Volle, Georg Zeppenfeld, Veronica Simeoni and Benjamin Bernheim
© Monika Rittershaus

This was unfortunate because the vocal demands on each of the principal roles and the chorus here are legion, and they were more deserving of the limelight. In his debut as Nabucco, Michael Volle’s vocal carriage and resonance were first rate, albeit his king was perhaps less regal than it was rowdy. As the tension mounts, for example, Nabucco’s admiral-like uniform, tightly buttoned at first, is left open, lending a degree of dishevelment that might have made as convincing a Sweeney Todd as it did a King of the Assyrians. Yet in his defence, Homoki presents us with a more humanised Nabucco, a leader who, despite an unprecedented load of politics, burdens and threats, interacted generously with the two little girls who played his daughters as children.

Georg Zeppenfeld’s Zaccaria, the Hebrew leader, was sung with terrific conviction and aplomb. His resonant, superbly-controlled bass was a second true vocal highlight of this production, despite the paucity of stage direction around his character. As Ismaele, the agile Benjamin Bernheim gave a stunning debut, his voice clear as a bell and just as inviting. Veronica Simeoni, clad like the roving reporter in a beige trench coat and heels, sang Fenena with confidence, grace and compassion, while Anna Smirnova sang the obstinate and power-hungry Abigaille. Fortunately, the shortcomings she suffered two or three times in her high register before the interval were mastered nicely later.

Michael Volle (Nabucco) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Zaccaria)
© Monika Rittershaus

If, as is often said, the chorus in Nabucco is an independent character, then the huge body of the Zurich Opera Chorus and supplementary choir deserves its own accolades. Together, those 70-plus voices under the direction of Janko Kastelic made the rich balustrade from which this production hung. Finally, under the seasoned direction of Fabio Luisi, the players of the Philharmonia Zürich paid polished tribute to Verdi’s colourful, pulsating and ever-changing score with the requisite agility and precision.