The merrymaking glittered at the Arena di Verona, and not just on stage. A firecracking fête sparkled in the long set changes, with flowing dresses and filament champagne flutes weaving the frenzy of ice cream sellers. The eye swept a twinkling expanse of foldable fans during the opera itself, fluttering attempts to keep a cool head in this Roman den of delights. Nabucco had come home in this much loved reading by 90 year old Arena veteran Gianfranco de Bosio. It provided a strong musical performance, and a dramatic extravaganza all round.

<i>Nabucco</i> at the Arena di Verona © Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Nabucco at the Arena di Verona
© Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona

The story concerns the Babylonian conquest of the Jews, with King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar of the Old Testament) leading the way before he loses his mind in an intensive power struggle with his daughters. De Bosio's highly traditional reading takes blockbuster form, aided by Veronese architect Rinaldo Olivieri's sets, which are at once epic and pragmatic. A royal palace towers in golden pillars that integrate beautifully with the stone terraces behind. Mobile structures reconfigure into a lofty Tower of Babel, which cracks and smokes in a liberal interpretation of the destruction of the idol of Baal in the final act. The vast backdrop hums with life when crowds pour like ants from openings all around, giving us the sense of living within the drama itself.

Dressed in drab attire, the Jews contrasted piquantly with a Babylonian sea of lurid colour. Verdi set the chorus as a key protagonist, and it sang with class, from wailing, besieged Israelites to roaring soldiers for Nabucco's entry atop a throne flanked by monumental lions. There was bite to their diction and spice in their delivery: when the Levites spat accusations at a treacherous Ismaele in "Maledetto dal Signor!", they sent a chill down the spine. Riccardo Frizza interspersed the crisp, rattling marches with moments of plushness, drawing linear tension in a taut yet supple reading from the orchestra. Verdian ingenuity abounded amongst the dramatic swathes, including a leathery six-part cello introduction to "Vieni, o Levita!" and the brass dirge prelude to the final act's death march that emanated from within the central tower.

Dalibor Jenis (Nabucco) © Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Dalibor Jenis (Nabucco)
© Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona

Tonight's alpha males provided a pair of captivating performances. Dmitry Belosselskiy's Zaccaria was dignified in white beard and priestly garb with all the golden trimmings, resounding with solemnity as he conferred blessings on throngs of Israelites in a rounded, oaken voice. The steely voice of Dalibor Jenis' Nabucco, with ultra-sharp diction and a formidable line, formed a thrilling antithesis (notwithstanding an indulgent tendency to swill the sound around the mouth). His strapping Nabucco was all rage early on, later steaming with fertile nuance when, mental health unravelling, he grasped his captive state at the hands of his daughter Abigaille, using the single word "Prigionier?" in "Donna, chi sei?" to convey defiance, confusion and sorrow in as many successive reiterations. Musicians thrived off this fine performance: when a blasphemous Nabucco was struck down by God (helped by judiciously applied pyrotechnics centre stage), the orchestra withered to nothing, and emerged full of agony.

Susanna Branchini (Abigaille) © Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Susanna Branchini (Abigaille)
© Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Elsewhere, the results were rather patchier. Sanja Anastasia's Fenena melted hearts with her rich, compact voice, whilst Piero Pretti struggled to make an impression with a whiny portrayal of her lover Ismaele. Susanna Branchini's Abigaille was curiously inconsistent. In places, she beguiled with strutting self-confidence, shooting out vocal fireworks in "Ben io t'invenni, o fatal scritto!" in a role branded a graveyard by many a soprano great. In others, she drew seemly grimaces with astringent dramatics, urging Nabucco to sign his daughter's death warrant with impatient urgency rather than the usual foxy wiles. But this did not distract from the deficit at the bottom and in the middle of the voice, which tended to flap expansively at the top with the sense that the anchor had gone astray.

Such reservations are minor ones in the dazzling operatic circus of the Arena, a homage to opera where candles at dusk, the interval mêlée and the splendour of the venue are all as important as the music itself. The spirit was epitomised by “Va pensiero”, the operatic hit that many Italians believe should be their national anthem. Frizza took it at a luxuriant pace, starting tenderly and growing with spirited surges. Foot stomping ensued, topped by a lone cry of "Viva Verdi!" (the audience member in question had also led the "bravi!" throughout, employed by the Arena, said one orchestra member, to bring Italian flavour to an international audience). We got the chorus as an encore. A fitting tribute to the spectacle of Italian opera.