Ellen Kent Opera Company make their annual return to The Playhouse in Edinburgh this year with three one night only operas - “La Boheme”, “Nabucco” and “Aida”.
Tonight’s performance is “Nabucco” (I missed last night’s “La Boheme”), and courtesy of Giuseppe Verdi, we are transported back into Biblical times and the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland (from the Book of Jeremiah and Book of Daniel) by the Babylonian King Nabucco (short for Nabucodonosor or as we know him in English Nebuchadnezzar).
First performed in 1842, this is the opera that many consider permanently established Verdi’s reputation as a composer, and listening to the music of this not too often performed work, it is easy to understand why that is so… “Nabucco” is epic not only in its story but its music and any performers attempting to do any justice to the work are going to have to be on better than just very good form.
For this 2017 touring production, Ellen Kent has put together a very strong company of talented performers and musicians, and fronting that team the more than impressive technical vocal abilities of Odessa-born but now Paris-based soprano Olga Perrier as Abigaille (supposed elder daughter of Nabucco) is impressive throughout her performance, and particularly Abigaille’s Aria in Act II. Zarui Vardanean as Fenena (daughter of Nabucco) is an impressive mezzo soprano contrast to Olga’s Abigaille, but as usual in any story, the villains get to steal the show a bit. Nabucco himself is formidably performed by the vocal talents of Iurie Gisca who has the voice and the stage presence to command this role, as does Oleksandr Forskushak (High Priest). Strong and solid performances too from Giorgio Meladze (Ismaele), Vadym Chernihovskyi (Zaccaria) , Nadiia Ieremenko (Anna) and Gicu Barbanoi (Abdallo). Not forgetting of course conductor Vasyl Vasylenko and the orchestra.
Oddly enough for an opera, the best known work from Nabucco belongs not to any of the principal characters, but to the cast, and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves as they are driven into exile got the largest applause of the evening from the audience.
“Nabucco” is I think it fair to say “of its time”. Yes, the music is impressive and touching at times on genius, but the subject matter is very much a mid 19th century perception of how the ancient Biblical world might have looked through European eyes, and although we are transported to far off times, the music is very much of its time, and that can create a bit of a visual and musical clash of styles at times. I think, in this production, that Ellen Kent have given us something closer to what an audience of earlier years might have seen, and in so doing stayed closer to the spirit of the original opera than a high tech re-working might do. Let’s also not forget the impressive appearance of Nabucco’s horse, Houdini. Sometimes the addition of extras like this on stage does not work that well, but used properly as it is here, it does add a bit of the unexpected to the performance.
Any touring Ellen Kent opera is always going to have some limitations by the very technical nature of the performances. There is no luxury here of having the time to stage large and technical elaborate stage sets with hi tech monitors and visual effects. This is operatic performance where every night is a different performance and the set needs to be flexible enough to either change easily or be adapted to more than one performance. Likewise, costumes are on an at times obvious budget, but always full of colour, and there does seem to be a design preference in many Ellen Kent operas for very strong primary colours that stand out well on stage to an audience. This is at times a bit like stripping a production back to a time when stage technology had not overtaken the performance itself. Also, you have to take into account that this company is staging a different performance each night on the large expanse of The Playhouse stage. What really matters here is the music and the audience loved this performance with the cast having to take many bows at the end.
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To read our review of Ellen Kent's Aida click here
Review by Tom King