Monday, September 9, 2013

MISS PIGGY GOES TO BABYLON



I have had a pleasing night at the opera. Not thrilling, not annoying, not exciting, not ridiculous. Pleasing.
The occasion was the premiere of the Deutsche Oper’s production of Nabucco, an opera which was only familiar to me from its famous chorus, ‘Va pensiero’, and a once-heard, long forgotten soprano scena. Verdi’s ‘first hit’, with its tale of Israel versus Babylon, has plenty of musical parts that foreshadow his later works, and I must say it is an enjoyable change to have an opera with a baritone star, who gets the mad scene, and very little tenor. A pleasing opera.


 The piece has been neatly put on the stage. The towering walls, rows of mediaeval pikemen, the glowing spiral staircase (designer: Tilo Steffens), and the mostly Victorian costumes mixed with someone’s idea of Judaism might not have had much unity of period, but they looked well and gave a fine atmosphere to the stage (costumes: Julia Müer).
Most of the characters and the plot were moved around effectively, too (director: Keith Warner). With one glaring exception.


 The cast were decidedly efficient. Johan Reuter in the role of Nabucco sang his music freely and finely, in recognizably Verdian style, and played his lunatic moments without foolish extravagance. It is the librettist’s fault that he has improbably to say ‘OK I’m not mad anymore’ in time for the finale. A bit hard to take!


Vitalij Kowaljow as the priest Zaccaria was imposing and rich-voiced, rolling out his low notes, in particular, with a clarity unencumbered by the orchestra, Yosep Kang showed a fine clear voice in the small tenor role, and Jana Kurucová made a really splendid job of the underwritten part of Fenena. Every time I see this lady she is grand: a great acquisition by the Deutsche Oper. I look forward to seeing more of her later in the season.


 And then there was Abigaille (Anna Smirnova). The prima donna. The grande dame of the evening. And here things went most peculiarly wrong. The otherwise clever designer went horribly wrong: dressing her in a shiny blue 1940s cocktail dress, and then an equally ugly 1950s ball gown. With a straggly brown wig. The director went wrong, having her prowling around the stage pushing people over or rolling about coitally on the floor. It was like Miss Piggy in drag doing her wicked witch imitation.
Miss Smirnova went wrong, too. In the first act she sang sometimes distressingly on the edge of the note, and she only seemed to let the reins go on her fine, rich voice in the second half. But then she sounded (and looked) as if she belonged in a different opera to everyone else.


 The orchestra (conductor: Andrea Battistoni) did its part as well as this orchestra habitually does, and William Spaulding’s choruses had a particular field day, the show giving them plenty to do, as well as The Big Tune. But, do you know what? ‘Va pensiero’ sounds much more modest in the show than in the hands of the Robert Wagner Chorale or the Huddersfield Choral Society. Pretty, sad, effective and not at all showy. Much better. Tonight it was most tastefully done. And the first-rate chorus had plenty of chance to let rip elsewhere in the opera’s enjoyable concerted music.

So, all in all, there was plenty to like in the performance and staging of tonight’s Nabucco. I actually cheered Zaccaria and Fenena. But then came the cocktail frock and the Miss Piggy bit, and my ardour cooled. Maybe the management will buy Abigaille some new frocks later. And the director will cut some of her Joan Crawford business. Let Abigaille be cool and calculating instead of camp.

But it was a pleasing evening. And I think both Verdi and Nabucco got pretty good , clear, uncluttered service. But I went in knowing only ‘Va pensiero’ and came out knowing only ‘Va pensiero’, and humming La Forza del destino. Oh well, not every opera is a Trovatore.

Addendum: several months later, in New Zealand, I have happed upon an 1850 review of Nabucco aka Nino aka Anato aka a few other names, when it was staged in London to feature baritone Ronconi in the unbiblicised title-role. It is described already as a 'stale and worn out' opera, and the role of Abigaille (played by the great soprano Anais Castellan) is described, not unreasonably, as 'a character unmixedly disagreable'. However, 'the piece made a splendid spectacle'. Which is why, undoubtedly, like Miss Saigon and other horrors, it has had a long life.

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