Magazine article The Spectator

A Load of Old Baggage

Magazine article The Spectator

A Load of Old Baggage

Article excerpt

Nabucco Holland Park Pelléas et Mélisande Royal Opera

Arriving for the first production in Opera Holland Park's new season, we were greeted with a reassuringly retro set. Since there is no curtain, what we see is what we're going to get, and it is a stage full of battered suitcases and nothing else.

For the operagoer, this sets bells ringing.

Clearly we are in for an evening of tormented refugees, not surprising since this is Verdi's Nabucco, his first great success, containing the Italian equivalent of 'Land of Hope and Glory', the plangent chorus 'Va, Pensiero'. A fresher idea from the designer Yannis Thavoris would have been welcome. The peak period for battered cases was the late 1990s, when they went along with dark glasses and wheelchairs. And since OHP has a smart new roof and more comfortable seats -- if ones which the majority of the audience still have great and prolonged difficulty in finding -- it would be nice if its designers and directors had new ideas; actually it soon turns out that they do, but they aren't good ones in this instance. Sure enough the Jews wear black coats and hats, as we expect, but the Babylonians who persecute them are in part a circus team, with Nabucco the twirled-mustachioed ringmaster; clowns, tumblers, cute maned lions proliferate, and provide dangerous competition for the opera itself, a noisy but not all that robust vehicle. The anti-heroine Abigaille, posing as Nabucco's daughter, is not a member of the circus, but is clad still more ridiculously, and it says a lot for Maria Pollicina that she survived both her costume and the laughter it evoked to give a vocally powerful performance, a bit wild but catching the spirit of the work. The genuine heroine, with less impressive music, is taken by Kristina Hammarström, a lovely artist in her place, but early Verdi isn't quite it. The male singers are a competent but not outstanding set, and the regular OHP conductor Brad Cohen conducts with an elegance which would once have got him a Hollywood contract, and with satisfactory results from the chorus and widely spaced orchestra. Admittedly it's difficult to know what to do with many of the early Verdi serious operas. I don't think this production intends to send up Nabucco, as Glyndebourne's Macbeth clearly seems to, but making it 'relevant', as I dimly recall ENO also trying to do a few years ago, only emphasises the jaunty tunefulness which aligns Verdi with less than top-level Donizetti. It's got enough fun music, and even some that is touching, to deserve the occasional performance, but I don't see how it can be staged without seeming absurd. …

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