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Playing Baal

11/30/2000 -  and 2, 6, 8, 12, 15 December 2000, 27, 31 January, 3, 9, 15, 17, 19, 23 February 2001
Guiseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Bruno Caproni (Nabucco), John Daszak (Ismaele), Alastair Miles (Zaccaria), Lauren Flanigan (Abigaille), Anne Mason (Fenena), Richard Angas (High Priest of Baal)
ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Michael Lloyd (conductor), David Pountney (director)

The first performance of Nabucco was sold out, unusually for a new production at the ENO, and the audience seemed to be collectively relieved to get something familiar after a season of Italian marginalia. To the credit of David Pountney and the performers, what we got was a long way from familiar, but it was received with enormous enthusiasm.

Pountney’s approach was to look anew for the big ideas in the drama and music and to build the action around them. The programme contained some fruitful notes about faith, fanatical leadership and national identity (and an interesting nod towards King Lear); but the key to this production of Nabucco is that the main characters are all mad, and the people (with Ismaele and Fenena as their individual representatives) suffer as a result. In their different ways, Zaccaria’s zeal and Abigaille’s erotically charged sibling rivalry are as damaging as Nabucco’s out-and-out psychosis, which is at least followed by the return of reason and redemption.

Presented with straightforward passion, expressed mainly in the singing alone, the emotions involved were as clear cut as those in, say, one of Handel’s scriptural oratorios. But, although Zaccaria, Ismaele and the chorus (and Fenena after her conversion) wore modern costumes that identified them as Jewish, there was no sense of anyone being right or wrong until Nabucco’s revelation. Zaccaria's anger and Ismaele’s love for Fenena were clearly as much the cause of the destruction of the Temple, and the exile, as Nabucco’s megalomania. The luxury casting of Richard Angas as the priest of Baal, Zaccaria’s Babylonian opposite number, highlighted the fact that religion was a major part of the insane mixture, but that no particular religion was the problem.

Pountney’s other radical choice was to make the orchestra part of the community: they were in costume and played on platforms on the stage, with only the violins in the pit. (The set was otherwise almost formless, with the main action in a small area in the centre, with a strange device including a golden ball representing the power of Baal, which reappeared in act one as a wrecker’s ball and loomed over the rest of the drama.) In two key scenes -- Zaccaria’s cello-accompanied prophecy and Abigaille’s dying repentance with cor anglais -- the solo instrumentalists came on to the stage with the singers and were an integral part of the staging. The orchestra was a standard Verdian big band, with the brass at the top of the stage, but the playing was wonderfully light, often elegant, and a long way from the oompah band that the music can seem to invite. Michael Lloyd conducted from wherever suited the particular scene, very unobtrusively providing the only rational leadership on stage.

The singers were all, in different ways, extremely well cast. Bruno Caproni, from Northern Ireland, is a mainstream Verdian baritone, who looked exactly right in his Austro-Hungarian military regalia. He sang superbly and got a demented edge in his voice, but never really went meshugge. Alastair Miles, in contrast, was a totally wild and dangerous Zaccaria, using a beautiful voice to frightening effect. John Daszak certainly doesn’t have a Verdian voice, but gave an intense performance as Ismaele, usually a fairly rotten role because he’s mainly a plot device. Anne Mason was a rather austere Fenena, a kind of soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter. In her UK debut, Lauren Flanigan was totally deranged as Abigaille in a performance of amazing power and commitment, expressing all the dysfunctional emotion that Nabucco and his regime repress. Flanigan was limping very badly at the curtain call, a small indicator of her physical engagement, and hopefully not a serious one.

After last season’s Ernani, the ENO seems to be turning into a Verdi house in spite of a lack of big-league Verdi singers. Trovatore in the spring should be interesting.

H.E. Elsom



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