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The Procession of the Burqa Brides

Grand Théâtre
06/11/2023 -  & June 14, 17, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Nicola Alaimo*/Roman Burdenko (Nabucco), Saioa Hernandez (Abigaille), Riccardo Zanellato (Zaccaria), Davide Giusti (Ismaele), Ena Pongrac (Fenena), Giulia Bolcato (Anna), Omar Mancini (Abdallo), William Meinert (Il Gran Sacerdote)
Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Alan Woodbridge (chorus master), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Antonino Fogliani (conductor)
Christiane Jatahy (stage director), Thomas Walgrave, Marcelo Lipiani (set), An D’Huys (costumes), Thomas Walgrave (lighting)

(© Carole Parodi)

This production of Nabucco was a missed opportunity for le Grand Théatre de Genève. It assembled an ideal cast of singers, but unfortunately it also chose the Brazilian “rising star” of the theatre Christiane Jatahy as stage director. Winner of the 2022 Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, Jatahy has some interesting ideas, but her trademark of mixing media, while effective in a play, is distracting in opera, where music is the primary aspect of the art form.

Given Jatahy’s credentials, I was initially intrigued by what she would create using Nabucco, an opera with a modest and often implausible story, as her point of departure. Alas, it’s clear this stage director–whose present production is only her second foray into opera–knows woefully little about it and, more seriously, doesn’t even believe in the medium.

A pale imitation of the work of French director Ariane Mnouchkine, Jatahy attempts to capture the public’s attention with “actor‑public” interaction by having the chorus abruptly enter the aisles among the seated public. This tired trick was once a novel idea, but it’s long become tedious. Much in the vein of Jean Cocteau, whose La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Orphée (1950) were innovative and rightly praised in their time, notable for their striking surrealism, Jarahy highly values imagery above all else. Seventy‑five years later, Cocteau’s once intrepid style remains iconic, but it is no longer original. More seriously, Jatahy’s dramatic devices here are distracting, working against the cohesion of the action.

The first such dominant image was successful: Abigaille snatching the carpeting material of an unseen Solomon’s Temple and making it into a regal dress, the idea being grabbing power by destruction and expropriation. Even more striking was the opening scene of Act II where Abigaille again takes the carpeting material and makes it into a huge dress covering the entire stage. This is reflected in a mirror above the stage: a repetition of the symbolism of her hunger for power. That effective image was so overwhelming that one could not concentrate on what was being sung by the soprano.

Alas, it’s a clear indication that opera is alien to Jatahy. And she’s clearly forgotten that the aria is a song during which a character expresses their state of mind. It’s therefore not an appropriate moment to create action scenes, simply for the sake of it. One dreads the idea of one day experiencing Jatahy’s take on a more cerebral opera, such as Tristan und Isolde or Pelléas et Mélisande.

The most offensive example of Jatahy’s grand imagery was the “burqa bride.” Based on fashion designer Balenciaga’s take on the veiled traditional Yemeni wedding gown, Fenena, Nabucco’s younger daughter and recent convert to Judaism, is forced to wear such a dress when the priest king of the Jews attempts to use the Assyrian princess as a bargaining chip with Nabucco. It’s hard to see a bridal gown’s place in such a scene, except perhaps to express the prison‑state condition that marriage can be, a somewhat absurd idea in an opera where women are far from docile subjugated creatures, be it the power hungry warrior princess Abigaille or the determined convert Fenena who opts to join the oppressed Jews rather than enjoy her birthright station in life. There is no need to comment on the Orientalism of the idea of attributing a Yemeni bridal gown to an opera that takes place in Israel-Palestine and in Iraq. The discrepancy is similar to having a flamenco dress and castanets in a Swiss or German setting. The Balenciaga-inspired dress was so beautiful that it became the opera’s leitmotif ad nauseam–reappearing in a sixfold procession thrice and a fivefold procession once during dramatic moments of the opera, utterly distracting from the plot.

The three lead singers were as sublime as the stage direction was disastrous. First and foremost was Spanish dramatic soprano Saioa Hernández as Abigaille. It is hard to imagine any other present‑day singer doing justice to this extremely demanding role. It is alleged that the role of Abigaille took its toll on Verdi’s lifelong companion Giuseppina Strepponi’s voice so much so that it prematurely ended her career. The legendary Greek-Argentinian Elena Suliotis is a more recent victim of this role. Astounding the opera world with her Abigaille in the mid‑sixties, her career was basically over within five years. Let’s hope such a fate will not befall the magnificent Saioa Hernández, and that she will be wiser in her choices. In Act II’s “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno,” not only did Hernández withstand the technical challenges of one of Verdi’s most demanding arias, she also managed to convey the different emotions of the character–ambition, longing for love, being rejected, as well as learning she is an adopted daughter of slaves and not Nabucco’s actual daughter. Her Act III scene with Nabucco was almost terrifying as Hernández crushes her adoptive father into submission and forces him to sign a decree to massacre the Jews.

The brief but powerful final scene of the opera, Abigaille’s suicide, is rendered tepid by Jatahy’s idea of making her sing it offstage, in front of the first row in the orchestra. To add insult to injury, the conductor, who claims a love of early Verdi operas, added a new finale to the opera: a dissonant musical clin d’œil to Nabucco that sounded more like a homage to Luciano Berio than to Verdi, followed by an a capella reprise of the famous “Va pensiero” chorus. Let’s hope such innovations do not extend to La traviata ending in a reprise of the “Libiamo” chorus after Violetta’s death.

The hideous “modern” costumes, essential, one supposes, for shock value, didn’t add to the production except the obvious notion that power struggles are universal, common to all countries and epochs. Only a trip to the welfare office or a trip in time to a workers’ cooperative in Ceausescu’s Rumania can afford such a visual assault.

Nicola Alaimo was a powerful Nabucco. Endowed with a beautiful velvety voice, he was utterly moving in the passages where his vulnerability was on display, such as the powerless father unable to help his beloved daughter Fenena, or as a newly-weakened previously dominant figure. His “Dio di Giuda!” scene, where he converts to Judaism, was rendered less effective by the conductor accentuating rather than lessening the Umpapa beat much of early Verdi suffers from.

Riccardo Zanellato, one of today’s leading basses, was elegant and refined in his style. His basso cantante is too similar to Alaimo’s baritone to afford the needed contrast. In the smaller roles of Fenena and Ismaele, Ena Pongrac and Davide Giusti were quite a luxury. Both have beautiful voices and excelled in the Act I duet which eventually becomes a trio with Abigaille.

It is to be noted that Nabucco is an important opera in Verdi’s œuvre, not only for being his first big hit. At a time when bel canto was still the style of the day, it had the innovation of rendering the love story secondary, thus accentuating the dramatic side. This concept is repeated in two other Verdi-Solera collaborations: Giovanna d’Arco (1845) and Attila (1846). It was also new in the age of bel canto to have the chorus play such a prevalent role.

Despite its dreadfully misguided staging, this was, vocally, one of the most impressive Nabucco productions one could hope for. Hopefully, a recording of this production will be heard over the radio (but please–not the television!) for the sheer enjoyment of first‑rate Verdi singing.

Ossama el Naggar



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