Playing God, again

History would have it that Verdi’s early opera Nabucco is an allegory of Risorgimento politics and the struggle towards the reunification of Italy. Verdi’s more immediate struggle was with censorship, an issue he encountered throughout his life. Nabucco was his first ‘hit’ and the opera that opened theatre doors for him outside Italy. Unfortunately for Verdi and his librettist Temistocle Solera, this meant dealing with restrictions where, in England particularly, biblical subjects were forbidden on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was especially virulent over the ‘Old Testament opera permitted in Catholic countries’, according to the eminent music critic Henry Chorley, and an opera like Nabucco, he explains, ‘must here be re-baptised for we English are not so hard, or soft, as to be willing to see the personages of Holy Writ acted and sung in theatres. Hagar in the wilderness, Ruth gleaning among the “alien corn”, Herodias with the head of John the Baptist in the charger, are subjects of personal exhibition which all thoughtful lovers of art in music must reject, on every principle of reverence and of taste, and from which the thoughtless would recoil, because, perhaps, they are not so amusing as La Traviata.’

The character closest to biblical identity is the priest Zaccaria who resembles Jeremiah, so Nabucco was rechristened Nino, Re d’Assyria for London in 1846 with all the characters renamed, Zaccaria becoming the High Priest of Isis and the exiled Hebrews renationalised as Babylonians. This Nino guise was how the opera received its Australian première in 1860. As a further precaution against offending the sensibilities of the Church of England’s colonial flock, it was decided that, ‘a sacred subject for the purpose of an opera being justly obnoxious to most people, the incidents were ultimately ascribed to Ninus, asserted by Diodorus to have been the first king of Assyria’. Confusion reigned as the audience grappled with the characters’ names and real identities to the extent that one correspondent opined that the audience would call in vain upon its recollections of student history to sort out the plot, which was an ‘incongruous amalgamation of incidents, and the jumbling together of epochs and empires, which even the license allowed to the lyric drama will scarcely justify’.

By the end of the century Nabucco had been overshadowed by Verdi’s mature operas, and with its rehabilitation in the 20th century, its plot, concerning the exile and near massacre of Jews, invariably means Holocaust connotations as a production requisite.

In David Freeman’s new production for Opera Australia, the terms of reference are widened to include recent Middle East politics. A little of the ‘jumbling together of epochs and empires’ that dogged Nino was at work again. Beginning with Fiddler on the Roof-ish costumed Israelites awaiting the approaching Babylonian army, it is with Nabucco’s entrance that Freeman reveals his interpretive key. Nabucco is the mustachioed, rifle-toting Saddam Hussein of modern-day Iraq, formerly Babylon, and not much has changed. The succeeding acts, however, resort to telling the opera proper with a kind of British Museum accuracy. Dan Potra’s sets with aqua tiled walls, sculpture and costumes are reminiscent of ancient Babylon. Nabucco, now costumed in a Stalinesque white dress uniform, is the exception, only if to make way for the opera’s most dramatic moment, when he declares himself God and is struck down by celestial lightning. Freeman has blood rain down on the pristine uniform in a way that would make even the most excessive Jacobean dramatist sick.

Musically, the opera was finely performed. Full credit to Freeman for not impeding his singers. Rosamund Illing, in particular, as the villainous Abigaille, coped with the extraordinary vocal demands of the role—even going for broke with the unwritten high C that crowns her famous cabaletta Salgo gia deltrono aurato. Michael Lewis’s Nabucco was equally good, more incisive than opulent, but that only puts him up there with the great singing actors of the past.

A far cry from 1842—when there was no operatic acting to speak of, the only interpretation of the libretto required was the composer’s ‘musical’ interpretation, and adding any further interpretation was considered redundant or even contradictory. It may be this conflict that makes for the furore over ‘controversial’ opera stagings that legitimate theatre with its text only rarely attracts.

Nabucco is also performed at the Sydney Opera House between June 29 and August 6. 

Michael Magnusson is a freelance writer.

 

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