Music survives tinsel and bling

David Kempster

David Kempster who sings the title role


Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


VERDI’S opera takes us into the heart of the destruction of Jerusalem with a tale very loosely based on the Biblical story of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

But it couldn’t be an opera without a love triangle in the middle so we have Israelite Ismaele as the beloved of both of Nabucco’s daughters – Fenena and Abigaille.

With the fall of Jerusalem and the Hebrews taken into captivity Nabucco believes he has proved he is even more powerful than the Israelite God Jehovah – but such idolatry cannot go unpunished and he is reduced in body and mind by a thunderclap from the Heavens.

Add to this the scheming of his daughter Abigaille, who turns out not to be his daughter after all, and Nabucco is in real trouble.

Director Rudolf Frey and designer Ben Baur leave behind the classical costumes and set the piece in the modern day. The sets vary between dark and glittering gold but remain minimal in nature giving plenty of space for the drama to take place.


The modern costumes have a resonance, particularly with the chaos which is currently enveloping modern day Babylon, and Nabucco as warrior bears a resemblance to the former Libyan leader Gaddafi.

But it does also muddy the water a bit. The idea of an all-powerful God who can smite down a king and the terrible tragedy of the destruction of the Israelite Temple in that nation’s history don’t quite fit in the modern era.

There are also some curious details which I still haven’t fathomed – such as why the lead characters all first appeared with tinsel over their eyes and the relevance of lots of bling-coated one handed gloves waved around by the Babylonian rebels.

While the staging is a bit bewildering, the performances at the heart of the opera are very strong. Mary Elizabeth Williams is stunning as Abigaille. One moment she is furiously promising revenge, the next she is giving Ismaele the eye. Then we see her as a vaudeville queen reaching for the real crown before watching her take power from her decrepit father without a streak of pity. Finally she is reduced to a guilt-ridden death-bed.

David Kempster manages the fall from grace as Nabucco with real aplomb. One moment he is banging on the table insisting the room worship him, the next he is lying prostrate under the same table clutching his motionless arm.

A constant throughout is the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria, played by Kevin Short, who urges his people on, promising them that God will not abandon them for ever.

The chorus are in fine voice – not least when they join in the opera’s famous Va pensiero or Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

And the Orchestra of the WNO, conducted by Xian Zhang ensure Verdi’s fine score is given ample opportunity to shine.

Nabucco is performed at Birmingham Hippodrome again on Saturday June 21 at 6.15pm.

Diane Parkes



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