Nabucco is the opera which famously established the young Giuseppe Verdi as a composer in the Italian operatic landscape of the first half of the 19th century. Listening to it today is an exercise in musical history: Rossini’s influence is the foundation of a work which takes a life of its own, with new, modern ideas. Many of these ideas are embryos, budding musical paradigms, which would later be developed to their full potential in the long career of the great composer.

The overture in particular is Rossinian in nature, but the whole score shows an exciting pace and crescendos worthy of the old master. Omer Meir Wellber led the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in a very rhythmic and loud rendition, which, at times, had a marching-band quality; on the other hand the sound of the orchestra was so beautiful and rich that this did not affect the result.

Nabucco, Dresden State Opera
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

The story is inspired by the tale of Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible: the Assyrian king attacks and defeats the Jewish people, destroys their temple and declares himself a deity. God strikes him from the heavens and he converts to Judaism, promising to rebuild the temple. David Bösch set the story in modern times, with the Assyrian army wielding automatic rifles and wearing camouflage. But the Assyrian priests still worship Baal with very primitive rites involving the throat-cutting of a bull, whose blood is sprinkled on the “Magi”, while modern soldiers cheer all around. It was hard to make sense of such incoherence, although I was personally grateful that, for once, we were spared a Nazi setting. There seemed also to be little Personenregie: the singers were mostly left to their own devices. In general, this was not a big problem, the singers being experienced, but it was particularly evident in Nabucco’s madness scene.

The sets by Patrick Bannwart comprised a temple which was more like a house, (“di Dio la stanza”, God’s room, as Zaccaria calls it), where all the Jews gathered during the battle. The scene of the burning of the temple was very effective. Other details, showing the brutality of the Assyrian army, seemed a little over the top, for example Nabucco kicking away the coffin of a baby, or trying to shoot a youngster in the head with a gun that keeps jamming.

Saioa Hernández (Abigaille)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Musically, the performance was much more convincing. Saioa Hernández was at a double debut: her first time singing Abigaille and her first time singing in Germany. Her prise de rôle was confident and successful. Her voice seemed very suited to this repertoire: strong, dramatic, with a round, velvety colour, a lyrical quality and spectacular, secure, shimmering high notes. One or two of the first high notes seemed a bit constricted – understandable première nerves, perhaps – but, as the evening unfolded, she released a natural, big, beautiful sound. She seemed to enjoy the “bad” character, highlighting every negative emotion Abigaille shows: rage, vengeance, cruelty. Still, her death scene was tender and moving.

Nabucco was Andrzej Dobber, whose baritone is warm and well projected, although his phrasing was not so successful and he lacked elegance. Fenena, Nabucco’s younger daughter, was Christa Mayer, with a powerful, bright voice, a tad too metallic in the high register. Massimo Giordano, as Ismaele, sang with a generous, Italianate sound, in an emotional, heart on sleeve performance. Vitalij Kowaljow’s deep bass gave authority to Zaccaria, the Jewish rabbi, with a convincing interpretation. His prayer “Tu sul labbro”, with the accompaniment of only the cello section, was heartfelt and emotional.

In Nabucco, the chorus is one of the most important characters, for whom Verdi wrote some of his best music. The Sächsischer Staatsopernchor was powerful, detailed in the phrasing, precise in the rhythm. Their performance was top notch, especially in the first chorus “Gli arredi festivi”, and in the second act finale “S’appressan gl’istanti”, which was one of the highlights of the evening.