Nabucco in a shopping mall – this is Graham Vick’s concept for his new production of Verdi’s early masterpiece created specifically for New National Theatre Tokyo. In the production notes, Vick writes that in this Nabucco, he wanted to find an alternative for Jehovah, God of the Hebrews, because Japanese people don’t believe in the existence of the Divine, and he decided to replace God with “Nature”. Thus the Hebrew people become modern Japanese people who have turned their backs to “Nature” and have become worshipers of materialism. When the audience enters the auditorium, they are met with a brightly-lit modern Western shopping mall with brand stores (set design, Paul Brown; lighting, Wolfgang Göbbel) where people are busy shopping (in the corner, an automatic piano is playing Verdi’s music). Then suddenly, a group of Babylonians burst into the shopping mall, dressed like a parody of terrorists in pop orange/pink outfits with animal masks and colourful wigs. Vick explains that the Babylonians in this production represent “anarchists” or “activists”. Thus the Hebrew (Japanese) people are captured by these violent anarchists and through their severe ordeal, they give up materialism and ultimately find “Nature” again. So did this modern reading convince?

The answer is yes and no. I think Vick’s argument is a valid one and the contrast of the well-dressed materialistic people and the wild anarchists is visually powerful and creates dramatic tension between these two people (which I found totally lacking in the recent Royal Opera House production). Vick’s handling of crowd scenes is masterful and effective (with choreography by Ron Howell). The interaction between the characters (between Nabucco and Abigaile, Zaccharia and Fenena, Ismaele and Fenena, etc.) is also sensitively handled.

However, performing the whole opera in a single set creates problems. To set the scene, the relevant section from the Bible was read out over the speaker system before each act, but I didn’t find it particularly helpful in this modern reading. The destruction of the temple in Act I and the palace scene in Act II worked quite well in the shopping mall; however, the famous “Va pensiero” scene in Act III, though beautifully and poignantly sung by the chorus, failed to capture the right mood. The people, clutching on to the remnants of their handbags, shoes and shopping bags, were yearning for their lost materialistic world rather than for their homeland, and I found it difficult to empathise with the predicament of these people (it was certainly free from any nationalistic connotations, though).

What I found most problematic in this production was that the key feature of Vick’s modern interpretation, namely replacing God with Nature, was not visually clear enough on the stage. If one hadn’t read his production notes, it would have been difficult to comprehend this concept. During his recitative and prayer scene in Act II, the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria plants a sapling, which hints that his faith is in Nature. Also in the final scene, Nabucco brings a small tree and Fenena and Ismaele plant it together – which was probably symbolism for the victory of Nature over materialism. However, such imagery was too simplistic and visually not convincing enough.

Musically, the production was generally strong with excellent singing especially from mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti (Abigaille) and bass Konstantin Gorny (Zaccaria). Cornetti sang with power and consistency across the vocal range – equally at ease in her vengeance cabaletta in Act II and her moving final aria of repentance. Her character as a sort of female gangster boss was hardly flattering but she pulled it off convincingly.

The role of Nabucco was sung by Italian baritone Lucio Gallo, in his role debut. As the leader of the terrorist group (he first appears with ammunition bound around him), he is a rougher figure than the usual Nabucco, but he is a good actor and was especially touching in the Act III father and daughter scene with Abigaille. On the day I saw the production (performance number four in the run), his voice wasn’t in the best condition, and his aria in Act IV suffered from insecure intonation in the high register.

The aforementioned Zaccaria’s aria in Act II was beautifully sung by Gorny, accompanied by the fine cello section of the Tokyo Philharmonic. The two lovers, Ismaele and Fenena, were sung by young Japanese singers, rising tenor Tatsuya Higuchi and mezzo Mutsumi Taniguchi. Higuchi is small in stature but has a clear, ringing tone, and he expressed the emotional conflict of Ismaele between love and belief. Taniguchi was a little insecure in the first act, but her farewell aria in Act IV was finely executed.

The conductor Paolo Carignani displayed his experience in this repertoire, providing steady support for the singers and encouraging lively and well-articulated playing from the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, although they sometimes sounded a little lightweight (especially the tutti strings). The chorus deserves high praise, not only for their superb singing but for their committed acting and dancing. Overall it was a stimulating production and satisfying performance.