The first word I could hear while on entering the auditorium of the New National Theatre today was “escalator” and I thought that those ladies were referring to the new ones in the lobby, but then I saw a couple of them on stage. “Aren’t you performing Nabucco today?”, a man asked one of the ushers. “Yes, sir”, she answered in a very professional tone. “But why there is a department store on stage?!” “It seems that this is the modern way of staging an opera”, she repressed a smirk. “Aaah…”.
The New National Theatre has had its share of stylized stagings, but it seems today many members of the audience are going to google the word “Regietheater” for the first time. In any case, the program had an explanatory text in which you could see side by side pictures of Zeffirelli’s and Calixto Bieito’s stagings of Verdi’s Aida. I am not sure if I truly like Graham Vick’s new production of Verdi’s Nabucco, but I am grateful for not seeing choristers in Life-of-Bryan costumes trying to walk like a Babylonian. Most of all, I am glad that Mr. Vick had intended his production to the Japanese audience. I am not sure if he understands it or even really had something to say, but he did get it right that many of those in the the National Theatre watch and listen to opera as if it had nothing to do with their lives, but rather as a a) traditional, b) foreign; c) respectable entertainment. I am no sociologist, but I would rather believe that in many points, audiences in Japan could relate more directly to it than those in Milan or in Munich. You’ll only need to read Japanese newspapers to see my point.
In any case, there is a shopping mall on stage. Well-dressed people are drinking their cappuccini, fidgeting with their Iphones and buying Italian designer items. There is a beggar with a “the end is near”-sign, but nobody seems to notice him, until he grabs a passer-by, strip her from her overcoat to reveal her funkier clothes. She is Fenena. Later a gang of terrorists in pig masks would invade the mall led by some sort of Tracy-Turnblad-meets-the-bride-of-Chucky (Abigaille). Then you realize that: a) the Hebrews are the consumerists; b) the shopping mall is their temple; c) the Babylonians are the Die-fette-Jahren-sind-vorbei terrorists (they basically mess things around and place them in funny places) who put them in a hostage situation. As much as the no-fourth-wall approach could be interesting, this scenario does not really go with the plot. In Verdi’s Nabucco, the Babylonians are the established power with an army, the power to pass laws etc etc, while the Hebrews are the oppressed “nation without a state” that has no one to protect them but their invisible and very abstract God (as the Babylonians more or less would describe it). I can see that Mr. Vick wishes us to have a fresh look into the situation – and I would guess that he finds the Hebrews as portrayed in this story some sort of uncongenial conservative bunch – but his reversal of values requires so much suspension of disbelief that in the end you just give it up: if the Hebrews are here the bourgeois clientele of the shopping mall and the Babylonians are the terrorists, where is the police? I mean – the terrorists are not the State and therefore have no right to resort to violence. So they are criminals, right? So, where is the police? Also, how come Zaccaria the beggar “belongs with” the mall clientele? Why would the clientele follow his lead in the first place instead of just calling security to escort him out? Finally, since we are adapting the story to give it a second layer of meaning, why God’s lightning is just good, old meteorological lightning? I mean, the anarchistic terrorist leader would loose his sanity because the shopping mall was struck by lightning? Well, that was enough for the biblical Nebuchadnezzar , but he really meant it when he declared that he was God when that happened… Also, the option for literal lightning makes the collective conversion in the end of the opera hard to take. In the libretto, Nabucco regains his sanity as a miracle once he accepted God in his heart. Is it what happens here? Seriously?! Once you stop caring about these “details”, there are somethings to enjoy here: Paul Brown’s realistic sets are extremely convincing, the underage offender Abigaille is an interesting take on the role and the choristers are very well directed.
This is my second Nabucco conducted by Paolo Carignani (the first one was in Munich) and, if my memory does not play me a trick, I find this performance superior. I was going to write that the orchestra this afternoon sounded as an orchestra entirely different from the one that played in the New National Theatre’s Aida and Tannhäuser – and the reason is very simple: this is the Tokyo Philharmonic while Aida and Tannhäuser had the Tokyo Symphonic. This seems to be an evidence that larger-scale works should always get the Philharmonic. Today, the orchestra basically had SOUND. And that made all the difference in the world, especially when those musicians proved to be engaged in the drama, keeping up with some fast tempi. While Carignani cared for beautiful sounds first in Munich, here he seemed primarily concerned in keeping things exciting and animated, which is always a safe option in this repertoire. When one listens to Riccardo Muti’s studio recording, one finds that there are moments when one can find some dramatic depth in nobler phrasing in key moments and attention to detail, but that would be an unfair comparison anyway.
Abigaille is such an impossible role that pointing out this or that shortcoming in a singer is an entirely futile exercise. Does Marianne Cornetti make something of Verdi’s excruciating demands? Yes, with great distinction, I would add. Her voice is not the kind of flashy Italian soprano with big chest notes and piercing acuti one would expect to find here. Moreover, she is sometimes caught short when things get too Semiramide-esque but, except for a rather breathless Salgo già del trono aurato, she proved to be very much mistress of her resources, singing with unfailingly big, round and warm tones, admirably homogeneous throughout her range. One could observe that her singing lacked verbal specificity (especially in comparison to Renata Scotto in Muti’s recording), but her almost Mozartian poise in some fiendishly passages made her Abigaille more “human” than what I am used to hear (Anch’io dischiuso un giurno particularly touching without ever being schmaltzy). This very generous artist showed great abandon in her stage performance too – costumes and blocking showed her in her less glamorous (to put it mildly) but she seemed to relish the opportunity to give herself entirely to the experience of performing this role in such an approachable way.
As Fenena, Mutsumi Taniguchi proved to have a very interesting mezzo – the sound is dark and has a slightly veiled quality until it opens up in a gleaming and very firm top register. Oh dischiuso è il firmamento was beautifully and sensitively sung. Tatsuya Higuchi (Ismaele) has an attractively hued tenor with some piercing top notes, but he is over-emphatic in his phrasing and, as many Japanese tenors, operate in a very taut – but not thin – high register. This was a good afternoon for Lucio Gallo too, probably the best performance I have ever heard from him. He was in very firm and rich voice and, although his baritone is not as voluminous as those of many famous Verdian household names, it projected easily in the auditorium. He alone could highlight Verdi’s parole sceniche as singers in this repertoire are supposed to do and often ventured in soft singing that verged on falsetto sometimes. As his Abigaille, he seemed very comfortable with the stage direction – their scenes invariably being this performance’s best moments. I am afraid, though, that Zaccaria is not Konstantin Gorny’s role – it is indeed a very difficult role, but he found it hard to pierce through the orchestra and, when he did, the sound was often fluttery and curdled. He never cheated, though, and never showed himself less than fully engaged, but the part requires a nobler and ampler sound.