Persecution complex

Lucien Jenkins

Having Plácido Domingo reprise the role of Verdi’s eponymous King of Babylon creates instant celebrity-anxiety: would the evening be a triumph or an embarrassment? In the event, triumph – though only just. Domingo’s Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) is expressive, he has stage presence and there is still power in the voice, though he has to look for it; he also brings to the baritone role something of the tenor’s experience of love and heartbreak.

In Daniele Abbado’s production, Nabucco’s adopted daughter Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) is a dominating, brooding (and vocally athletic) figure on the stage. She even manages to look rather like Giuseppina Strepponi, who created the role in 1842. The captive Israelites are rallied by Zaccaria (John Relyea), who sings with a dark, chocolatey voice. He is initially a menacing bigot and permanent threat to the king’s actual daughter Fenena (Jamie Barton). When the latter converts to Judaism, thus transforming the significance of Ismaele’s (Jean-François Borras) actions in protecting her, Zaccaria becomes the heroic leader of a community under threat of annihilation. This is a challenge, and although Relyea sang well the interpretation remained a compromise.

Cardiff-winner Barton, effectively Cordelia to Domingo’s Lear, is on stage a good deal, but Verdi doesn’t given her the chances really to show what she’s made of. Borras is similarly limited by the opera. Both of them are good, but the blue touch-paper of passion never looks combustible. Jette Parker Young Artist Vlada Borovko as the prophet’s sister Anna is another character whom the evening doesn’t overtax; she nevertheless makes a real impression and one looks forward to hearing more of her.

This was not just a night of on-stage solos, but also of excellent ones from the ROH’s orchestra under Maurizio Benini – cello, trumpet, cor anglais, flute and others all shone. Also worth mentioning is the programme, which contains rather better than usual material.

Set in the ancient Middle East, with Israelites defeated and carried into captivity by Assyrians (the opera isn’t fussed about the difference between Babylonia and Assyria), Nabucco poses the designer a challenge. Alison Chitty decided that the opera was about our own times and thus did not rummage among the beards and lions of British Museum Room 55 in search of robes and armour. Instead, a large crowd of mid 20th-century, mid-European Jewry gathers with yarmulkes, prayer shawls and enough fedoras to revive Britain’s millinery trade. The scenes resemble the black and white photographs of the Shoah. Fortunately the Babylonians are not togged up as Nazis, nor given those non-specific militarist uniforms so beloved of directors. A handful of rifle-toting, bare-chested men with dangling braces strut about, calling to mind Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. With that exception, the two groups’ costumes do not greatly differ, which perhaps makes its own point.

The set, revealed during the overture, is upright blocks in a large sandpit. Is this an artist’s impression of London once all the plutocratic tower blocks have gone up? A building site or half-built henge? Graveyard? Perhaps a bit of all three. Crowds mill about among them, suggesting they are a built environment. Blocks are thrown down when Nabucco orders the temple’s destruction. There is a bit of Wailing Wall stage-business by some members of the chorus. Behind, a continual projection shows the onstage events from a different angle, so that we seem to be watching both event and news report in a way that emphasises the connections between the Babylonian captivity and more modern persecutions and migrations.