Green and beige are the only two colours you will see in this Nabucco, a work that Dutch National Opera hadn’t staged for 45 years. And Andreas Homoki’s direction of the singers also has only two registers – hotfooting with hand-wringing and prancing with jazz hands. Verdi’s biblical opera is reduced to warring, or rather posing, Israelites and Babylonians running around a huge rotating slab of malachite, trying to keep up with its gyrations for two hours. It is a dreary, poorly-lit spectacle with cloned costumes – sand-coloured 20th-century drabness for the Israelites and 19th-century malachite finery for their oppressors.

George Petean (Nabucco) © Martin Walz
George Petean (Nabucco)
© Martin Walz

And there is only so much uninterrupted malachite one can take. In the whole of the royal palace in Babylon there doesn’t seem to be a stick of furniture anywhere. Perhaps King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco of the title) sold it all to finance his advance on Jerusalem? The chorus of Israelites react to their occupation in a most peculiar way, by flinging their hands about and swaying to the propulsive marches. The soloists’ fate is worse. All they get to do is feel their way around the slab, then move downstage to sing. It’s not clear whether the chorus dance routines are meant to make fun of Verdi, who, still using conventional operatic formulas, scored his first huge success with Nabucco by giving the world Bellini on steroids. Maybe Homoki is also sending up the stand-and-deliver, beat-your-breast school of opera but, if this is irony, it escapes me. The soloists’ stock gestures almost turned them into caricatures. They writhed. Their arms sliced the air. And they fell, repeatedly, the women sinking into their crinolines and the men prostrating with whatever emotion was uppermost.

<i>Nabucco</i>, Overture © Martin Walz
Nabucco, Overture
© Martin Walz

It all started promisingly enough, with a staged overture rooting the strife between Nabucco and his two daughters in the family’s past. Nabucco’s wife dies suddenly, leaving behind two orphaned girls. Trying his best with his squabbling daughters Abigaille and Fenena, the king becomes subject to fits, a portent of his later madness. It’s a sound concept that is never explored further. Homoki sheds no light on the motives behind Nabucco’s megalomania and subsequent conversion, or Abigaille’s thirst for blood.

Mired in this muddle, the cast, so auspicious on paper, was fighting a losing battle. Conductor Maurizio Benini kept the Residentie Orkest and everyone else in step, but did not provide the much-needed musical nuance. Although Nabucco is not the subtlest of operas, it should be urgent, exciting and affecting, not an evening of efficient burbling broken by predictable forte outbursts. Instead of organic lead-ups to arias and events, the appealing flute and cello solos sounded like disconnected numbers, a predicament they shared with the singers. Every entrance of the lovers Fenena and Ismaele was highly welcome, as the roles were entrusted to velvety mezzo Alisa Kolosova and clarion tenor Freddie De Tommaso. But the tenderness and daring of their cross-cultural romance got lost in the meaningless monotony. Even the well-prepared chorus, despite a shimmery “Va, pensiero” and a rock-solid “Immenso Jeovha”, could not tilt their performance above admirable competence.

Anna Pirozzi (Abigaille) © Martin Walz
Anna Pirozzi (Abigaille)
© Martin Walz

Baritone George Petean sang the title role with a very attractive timbre, but was directed into a puzzlingly static performance. Conquering Nabucco acted and sounded the same as mad Nabucco and almost exactly the same as redeemed Nabucco. It was telling that Petean was at his most touching in “Dio di Giuda!”, not because this is the moment when Nabucco extricates himself from his demons, but because Petean started the aria with signs of vocal fatigue, a welcome evidence of human frailty in an otherwise uninvolving portrayal. Soprano Anna Pirozzi was mightily impressive as bad girl Abigaille, delivering gale-strength top notes and dispatching scales and interval leaps unflappably, if not always beautifully. In lyrical moments, however, she did not always project enough pathos, especially in the first half, when her piani stubbornly refused to float. The cantabile in her big scene, when we should glimpse the pain behind Abigaille’s aggression, was emotionally inert. Her death scene was probably more representative of her capabilities in this respect. When Abigaille shot herself (in lieu of taking the poison prescribed by librettist Solera), her tone was softer and her repentance touching. More’s the pity, then, that Homoki had her father and sister prop her up while she bled out in a sitting position, a totally ridiculous spectacle.

Freddie De Tommaso (Ismaele) and Alisa Kolosova (Fenena) © Martin Walz
Freddie De Tommaso (Ismaele) and Alisa Kolosova (Fenena)
© Martin Walz

As high priest Zaccaria, Dmitriy Belosselskiy was garbed as a secular military leader. His booming bass arced effortlessly upwards, although on the way down it sometimes grated on a gravelly bottom. There was sturdy support in smaller roles from Emanuele Cordaro as the High Priest (or rather Chief Enforcer) of Baal, Lucas van Lierop as Abdallo and a stand-out Verity Wingate as Anna. But this cast and this opera deserved much better.

**111