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Nabucco in a Modern World Without Thunderbolts

Royal Danish Opera House
09/26/2010 -  & September 28, 30, October 2*, 4, 8, 19, 23, 25, 29, November 1, 3, 18
Guiseppe Verdi:  Nabucco
Boris Statsenko (Nabucco), Matilda Paulsson (Fenena), Mlada Khudoley (Abigaille), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Zaccaria), Niels Jørgen Riis (Ismaele), Stephanie Lippert (Anna), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Abdallo), Jens Bruno Hansen (High priest of Babylon)
The Royal Danish Orchestra and Chorus, Giovanni Andreoli (chorus director), Lars Bjørnkjær (concertmaster), Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor)
Elisabeth Linton (director), Bill Holmberg (choreography), Herbert Murauer (set designer), Magdalena Stenbeck (costume designer), Reinhard Traub (lighting designer)

B. Statsenko & M. Khudoley
(© M. Backer/Ccourtesy of Royal Danish Opera)

This fall, for the first time, Danish opera goers – commoners as well as royalty and their friends – can experience the famous chorus of Hebrew slaves in its full operatic context at the Royal Danish Opera. On October 2, the house was full, and expectations were high. What would the guest soloists offer? Would we end up yawning at the religious message of Temistocle Solera’s libretto?

Director Elisabeth Linton began the production during the overture with a silent scene from the past: The king, his advisor and two young girls, a couple of years apart, dressed beautifully in satin and bows. The little girl in yellow sat on Nabucco’s lap as they watched slides of her past. The older girl in red, tried to join them, but the king pushed her away. Instead, she taunted the large snake that guarded the royal crown in a glass terrarium. The little girl joined her, they squabbled, and the advisor distracted them by feeding a squirming mouse to the snake as the king continued to dote on the slides.

All the while, we heard Verdi’s overture with all its references to coming events, which was very aptly conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi. He would - along with the Royal Danish Orchestra - keep up an inspired flow of music throughout the performance. As expected from an orchestra of calibre, there was not one disappointment in the many instrumental solos, and it was clear that the orchestra was playing with pleasure.

A chorus of around 75 singers then flowed onto the stage in robes and pajamas. They were beautiful versatile voices, professionals who would speak for the people in many roles and costumes. They would be civilians afraid of advancing enemies, soldiers celebrating their country, captives remembering their home in a beautiful lament. In particular, the even rhythm, careful climaxing, and soft a cappella ending of “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” in part III was a gentle dreamlike séance that gave us a moment of peace after the hefty conflicts of the opera until then.

Fortunately, in this production of Nabucco, the key soloists also deserve a good amount of praise. Consider the stage presence of Kristinn Sigmundsson as the prophet Zaccaria: He towered a head above everyone else on stage and led his countrymen with a powerful bass. Director Linton emphasized the prophet’s role as a mover of people and inspirer of vengeance by having him pour a pan of blood over his head and then blood-baptize his followers.

In the opera’s other role of revenge, Mlada Khudoley (Abigaille) demonstrated a natural high tessitura, a lovely bel canto technique, an ability to support Verdi’s challenging drops to the low register, and an Elektra-like intensity at critical moments. Her beautiful appeal for mercy at the end kept us enthralled, so the slash of the knife came unexpectedly - a fine touch of drama. Khudoley is so good that she might well become the exemplary Abigaille of the decade, provided she wants to continue performing this very demanding role.

Boris Statsenko (Nabucco) mastered the high baritone part and also delivered very credible acting. It is easy enough for a conqueror and king to declare himself God, but quite another matter - in the course of three minutes – for him to suffer a nervous breakdown because his daughter announces her conversion to another faith, but Statsenko meets the challenge. In fact, the psychological crisis prescribed by director Linton functions better today than the libretto’s divine thunderbolt from the sky.

While religious conversions are unavoidable in Nabucco, director Linton inserts a modern understanding without losing Verdi in the process. Abigaille’s disappointments as a child contribute directly to her hatred and power mongering as an adult, and Nabucco’s love for his child is responsible both for his breakdown and his recovery. His willingness in the end to accept Fenena’s choice of religion and mate – because he loves her – makes possible the peace between the two peoples.

Fenena (Matilda Paulsson) and Ismaele (Niels Jørgen Riis) delivered solid performances, in particular, a lovely trio with Khudoley in the first act. The other soloists - Bengt-Ola Morgny (Abdallo), Jens Bruno Hansen (High Priest of Babylon), and a very pretty Stephanie Lippert (Anna) also performed well.

Set designer Murauer and costume designer Stenbeck fulfilled director Linton’s vision of Nabucco in the modern world. Not unexpectedly, Babylonians wore in the uniforms of a modern dictatorship, Israelites wore civilian clothes and, later on, brown blankets and underwear. From the start, vengeful Abigaille is dressed in red, Fenena in yellow, Zaccaria in white (to give the blood full relief), and Nabucco in a long military coat, a suit, or a straightjacket. The set in Babylon is a hard fascist structure that tells us about repression: blood literally begins to flow down the white tile walls, getting redder as the time for mass executions approaches.

But wait: mass murder is averted, though we cannot say exactly how or why (fortuities, Nabucco’s recovery owing to his drive to save his child, or perhaps the God of his enemies answered his desperate prayer). The villains have been eliminated. We leave the Opera House with Verdi’s songs and music reverberating in our minds, and – thanks to Linton’s interpretation - with thoughts about unloved children, power mongers, prophets and rabble rousers, and, of course, the clash of civilizations and religions.

All Verdi fans in Denmark should of course see this wonderful production of Nabucco.

The Royal Danish Opera

Kathleen Gail Jensen



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