“Fly, my thoughts, on gilded wings; fly to rest on hills and mounts.” It’s no understatement to say that Va, pensiero, the Act 3 chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco, catapulted Giuseppe Verdi to lasting fame. It remains one of the biggest moments in any opera, and the Royal Opera Chorus performed it superbly last night. It was a sort of collective messa di voce, swelling from gentle yearning to the full-voiced nostalgia in the third verse modulation, dying back to an almost whispered ending.

© ROH 2013 / Catherine Ashmore
© ROH 2013 / Catherine Ashmore

It is the chorus writing that makes Nabucco an enduring work in its own right, worth more than its mere position in Verdian history. Most of the choruses are notably more robust than Va, pensiero, and it was clear that last night’s chorus had decided that this was their moment of glory for the season: they gave it their all and produced immense energy and excitement. Nicola Luisotti kept the orchestra in a supporting role, but a very fine supporting role it was: you always heard the voices first, with the orchestra always there underneath: clear, balanced and with true melodic feel. Nabucco is obviously the work of a young man, just as Otello is obviously not: the music brims over with no-holds-barred vigour. Last night’s performance brought this out to the full.

The choruses aside, Verdi created a fine role in the shape of Abigaille, the feisty Babylonian princess (or Assyrian – librettist Temistocle Solera was a little vague on his ethnography), a role first sung by Giuseppina Strepponi, who was later to become Verdi’s second wife and lifelong companion. It’s the role of a strong woman and last night, it got a very strong, dramatic soprano in the shape of Liudmyla Monastyrska. It’s hard to believe that it was exactly two years ago that Monastyrska made her Covent Garden debut as a late replacement in Aida: with performances at La Scala, the Met and Deutsche Oper Berlin under her belt, she now rates as one of the top dramatic sopranos on the circuit. She has raw power to burn, hits the difficult notes perfectly at both ends of the register, dips to beautifully phrased pianissimo when required and is steadily widening her range of acting nuance.

The other powerhouse in the cast was fellow Ukranian Vitalij Kowaljow, who sang the high priest Zaccaria. It’s another imposing, authoritative role and Kowaljow certainly made his presence felt. I might perhaps have asked for a touch less vibrato, but the drama, eloquence and feel for Verdi’s flowing vocal lines were all there. In the title role, Leo Nucci was at his best in the intimate moments, when the King, struck down by the Lord, veers in and out of insanity: Nucci’s sheer musicality carried the audience. But I’m not sure about the wisdom of casting older baritones in this role: as well as accomplishing the intimate parts of the role, the singer of Nabucco is supposed to be the alpha male destroyer of the temple in Act 1 and to exude renewed regal authority in Act 4. Nucci, I felt, was unable to muster enough of the required variation between these extremes. The illustrious Plácido Domingo takes on the role for the second half of this run, and I wonder whether he will fare better.

In the less central roles of Ismaele and Fenena, Italians Andrea Carè and Marianna Pizzolato made promising first appearances on the Covent Garden stage. Carè had a couple of moments when his voice was a shade forced, but was generally strong and lyrical; Pizzolato sounded good and confident.

Solera’s libretto for Nabucco is notable for its poetry but weaker on drama: it’s episodic and scattered, and the audience needs all the help it can get to keep track of what’s happening. Sadly, Daniele Abbado’s staging seemed fearfully disconnected from the drama, seeming inattentive to how the audience might be able to perceive detail. It was visually attractive: dozens of stone megaliths set in a sandpit, lit from top and sides; somewhat monochromatic mid-twentieth century costumes; interesting wireframe structures for the idols. But deliberately or otherwise, Abbado continually blurred the various elements of the piece.

The relative uniformity of costumes made it almost impossible to distinguish who was Hebrew and who was Babylonian (a scattering of Jewish prayer-shawls aside) and gave no prominence to the central characters. Only one set was used for both Judaea and the different parts of Babylon. There is fire on stage, but not at the point in the opera where the temple is burnt down. There are mothers mourning over dead children, but not at the time or place when there is a massacre. When Fenena has announced that she has now converted to Judaism, she is crowned with a skull-cap, which is faintly ludicrous to anyone who knows that female Jews don’t wear skull-caps. And the lighting design failed to take into account the audience’s viewpoint: if you light characters from the back or from above, their features are invisible to the audience.

The audience brimmed with spontaneous enthusiasm throughout this performance and all the curtain calls – until the production team appeared on stage, to be greeted with mild booing and the thinnest of applause. One might take this as a general Covent Garden dislike of non-period productions, but I think that misses the point: the problem was not that this production was modern but that it was overly focused on visual aesthetics and insufficiently related to the happenings on stage.

But such annoyances didn’t stop this being an exuberant, joyful evening of opera. Nabucco is full of music to lift the spirits and quicken the heartbeat, and while Abbado may have lacked a feel for the drama of its situations, Verdi did not. There are dozens of great dramatic moments, accompanied by fantastic music: Zaccaria enjoining the people to fear God, Abigaille swearing revenge or imploring Ismaele to return her love, Nabucco as wielder of fire and sword or deluded parent; a glorious trio between Ismaele, Abigaille and Fenena – I could list dozens, all performed in this production with vigour and joy, and that’s before considering Va, pensiero and the other choruses, which should have made chorus director Renato Balsadonna a proud man.

There aren’t many tickets left for this run, and they’re all in the expensive seats. If you can afford them, go for it.