Nabucco, Covent Garden

But, Domingo is sharing the role with Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, and
on this occasion the latter proved himself a stylish Verdian, with a voice that
can rove from heroic to suave, from ringing to whispered, and a dramatic
presence equal to the task of representing a King who is both crazed tyrant and
tender father.

Platanias’s blazing baritone is even across the range and beautifully
coloured. Its sureness and consistency, and his confident musicianship, offers
him dramatic freedom; powerfully built, whether vicious destroyer or vulnerable
patriarch, he commands the stage. At his first entry, Platanias’s King is
both dismissively imperious and disturbingly unstable: when he snatches the
crown and declares himself King and God of the Babylonians, his repeated
assertions of his own divinity (‘Non son pi˘ re, son dio’) signal
his impending insanity. He has both the tragic grandeur of Othello and the
paranoid delusion of Lear.

Subsequently, when Nabucco pleads for Fenena’s life (‘Oh di qual
onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto’) he becomes a Rigoletto –
the role in which Platanias made his debut at Covent Garden in 2012 – a
desperate father suffering the loss of the one thing in the world that he loves
with selfless honesty. In the final Act, miraculously restored to health and
reason – his prayers to the God of Judah answered – Platanias recovered his
regal rectitude, leading the final chorus with stentorian power and

In the pit, Maurizio Benini is reliable and brings the vigour of the young
Verdi’s score to the fore. The details of the orchestral accompaniments
are clearly heard, but they support the voices and never out-shine them. Benini
exercises a tight grip and – from my view in the Amphitheatre – seemed at times
to have more eyes, ears and arms than is humanly possible, cueing and guiding
all and sundry almost hyperactively during the Act 1 choral finale, furiously
flinging the pages of the score while never once glancing down. This was a
solid rather than a stirring performance, though, from the ROH Orchestra. There
was some dodgy tuning from the trombones at the start of the overture, which
fortunately settled when the chorale was later reprised, and the sheer
brassiness of the score didn’t quite make the mark it should.

Verdi’s said of the opera with which his artistic career really took
off, ‘though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that
Nabucco was born under a lucky star’. He might have added that
the star shone brightest over ‘Va Pensiero’: operatic myth has it
that at the first rehearsal the La Scala stagehands shouted their approval,
reinforcing their endorsement with a drumbeat of feet and tools upon the floor
and sets. It’s certainly rousing stuff and the ROH Chorus didn’t
disappoint. ‘Fly, my thoughts, on gilded wings; fly to rest on hills and
mounts’, cry the Hebrew slaves, and the Chorus really did make their
prayer take flight, soft-voiced beginnings swelling to urgent, warm waves of
sound, then fading to a magical pianissimo, following which the air seemed to
echo with the spirit of the hymn.

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska was a fiery, feverish Abigaille, as
power-hungry as Lady Macbeth and sharing all the latter’s coldness of
heart, utterly unmoved as she was by Nabucco’s pleas to spare
Fenena’s life. Monastyrska exuded self-confidence and self-conviction in
‘Salgo gi‡ del trono aurato’ (I already ascend the seat of the
golden throne), unhesitatingly seizing the crown when it fell from
Nabucco’s head. But her scorching fury was countered by moments of quiet
beauty. Framed by a semi-circle of fire, in ‘Anch’io dischiuso un
giorno’ she reflected with bitterness and pathos on her present
alienation and happy past, fading to a fragile but expertly controlled
pianissimo that hinted at a woman heart’s beneath the mask of magisterial

Monastyrska’s powerful dramatic soprano can hit a note at top or
bottom bang on and with astonishing steeliness. But, the sound was sometimes a
little raw, there was a tendency to stray sharp-wards, and the coloratura was
messy. But, if the characterisation lacked nuance, the vocal diversity was
satisfying compensation.

The other roles are inevitable overshadowed by the central father-daughter
pair, but American mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, making her debut at Convent
Garden, and Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo added a welcome touch of lyricism
as the ‘star-crossed’ beloveds, Fenena and Ismaele.
Barton in particular used her big voice with considerable expressivity, gliding
easily and with sumptuousness through the lyrical phrases.

As the High Priest Zaccaria, Canadian bass John Relyea also phrased
expressively but he didn’t quite have the vocal authority to conjure the
spiritual gravitas that would be necessary to convince the despairing
Israelites to trust in their God, who will destroy Babylon.
Relyea’s contemplative solo with wistful cello accompaniment was
sensitively sung, and played, though.

Alison Chitty’s designs seek to establish a connection between
biblical banishment and 20th-century oppression, specifically the
Nazi persecution of the Jews; and, the modern business suits by implication
also suggest the miseries of present-day mass exile. The colour scheme is
monochrome – unalleviated grey – whether we are in the Judaean temple or the
Babylonian gardens. And, while the ROH Chorus gives voice to diverse emotions,
from terror and torment to fortitude and faith, it’s not always easy to
distinguish Israelite from Babylonian. With a nod to the Holocaust memorial in
Berlin, the sandpit-stage is strewn with statuesque stone plinths representing
the Jerusalem Temple; in Alessandro Carletti’s half-light they evoke the
eerie strangeness of a de Chirico public square when first viewed, and
subsequently they become stumbling blocks to meaningful stage movement. Though
there is some attractive and thoughtful blocking of the Chorus, the back-wall
video projections of Luca Scarzella are no substitute for genuine dramatic

A lot of thought has gone into the visual design; but a neat
‘picture’ doesn’t necessarily result in genuine, gripping
drama. Whatever its political suggestiveness, Verdi’s opera is
essentially about human emotions – love and hatred – of Shakespearean
dimension. And Abbado’s production would benefit from a bit more
melodrama and a bit less modern-day migrant misery.

Claire Seymour

Nabucco – Dimitri Platanias, Zaccaria – John Relyea, Abigaille –
Liudmyla Monastyrska, Ismaele – Leonardo Capalbo, Fenena – Jamie Barton, Anna –
Vlada Borovko, Abdallo – Samuel Sakker, High Priest of Baal – David Shipley;
Director – Daniele Abbado, Associate director – Boris Stetka, Conductor –
Maurizio Benini, Designer – Alison Chitty, Lighting designer – Alessandro
Carletti, Video designer – Luca Scarzella, Movement – Simona Bucci, Orchestra
of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 15th
July 2016.

product_title=Nabucco, Covent Garden
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour