January of 2017 sees the return of Verdi's Nabucco to Deutsche Oper Berlin. Keith Warner's production of a Verdi favorite was successfully premiered in 2013, in the Verdi bicentenary. It begins amid thick fog as the overture is performed, with a grey figure eventually crossing the stage. God himself? Warner leaves the audience to interpret this individually, as he will many symbolic aspects of the production to follow.

Johan Reuter (Nabucco) in 2013 © Bernd Uhlig
Johan Reuter (Nabucco) in 2013
© Bernd Uhlig

Perhaps the heavy onstage fog can be blamed for repeatedly flawed brass entrances in the overture, which were a disappointing surprise given this usually excellent orchestra. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni used the limited, polite applause following the overture to take an unexpected preliminary bow, and then led the orchestra in a loud, boisterous performance. The entire evening was very loud – not just forte.

Soprano Anna Smirnova has a strong, penetrating voice with which she managed to rise above the volume challenges presented by Maestro Arrivabeni. In an overly-tight and rigid 1980s style 'power suit' she was instantly unlovable – as it is indeed her fate to be. Unfortunately, this suit seemed to make it difficult for her to move on the stage, yet her lust for power and cruelty remained palpable. Dalibor Jenis presented a lovely and sonorous baritone throughout as Nabucco. His subtle colorings were sometimes too subtle in competition with the orchestra, however, in general he gave a good performance, very enjoyable. 

Anna Smirnova (Abigaille) © Bernd Uhlig (2013)
Anna Smirnova (Abigaille)
© Bernd Uhlig (2013)

The Babylonians in this staging are all clad in two-tone livery and are obsessed only with their halberds. By contrast, the Hebrews are depicted in circa 1840 dress, long, conservative, black, with women in closed bodice dresses. They are devout and disciplined, busy with work or worship, a united community in both. Verdi composed this opera, his first grand success, in 1841 during the industrial revolution. Warner's staging reminds us of this, with a large 19th-century printing machine issuing sheets of Hebrew texts which are then devoutly carried around, and displayed without explanation. Tilo Steffens constructed an excellent mise en scène

<i>Nabucco</i> at Deutsche Oper © Bernd Uhlig
Nabucco at Deutsche Oper
© Bernd Uhlig

Throughout the entirety of the opera, this production is seemingly intentionally muddled with its symbolism; the audience is invited to deduce its own interpretation of the staged events. However, Warner presents the traditional Babylonian Hanging Gardens scene in which the Hebrews are executed quite clearly as a hanging garden of a different sort – the difference being ropes for hanging the prisoners rather than greenery. The Deutsche Oper Chorus performed the much loved “Va, pensiero” in beautiful, strong voice. Both Robert Watson (Ismaele) and Liang Li (Zaccaria) were notable for failings, Watson sounding pale in the performance, and while Liang Li's bass was strong, his words were unintelligible.

Nabucco fills the house with an audience that eagerly awaits its well known and much-loved melodies, later perhaps humming favourite bits on the way home. It is, nevertheless, a difficult subject matter, and must be carefully approached. In leaving much open to the individual interpretation of the audience, Warner succeeds, even if the vocal performances were mixed this time around.