A Success of Early Verdi

Verdi – Nabucco

Nabucco – Johan Reuter

Ismaele – Thomas Blondelle

Zaccaria – Vitalij Kowaljow

Abigaille – Anna Smirnova

Fenena – Ronnita Miller

Il Gran Sacerdote – Marko Mimica

Abdallo – Jörg Schörner

Anna – Hulkar Sabirova

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Paolo Arrivabeni

Stage director – Keith Warner

Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Sunday, October 13th, 2013.

After last night’s Macbeth, where I left the theatre fearing for an artist who was pushing his voice way beyond its natural capabilities, it was quite refreshing in tonight’s Nabucco to hear the opposite – a masterful performance from an artist fully aware of the nature of his instrument, completely aware of the stylistic requirements of the idiom and completely dramatically convincing.

Nabucco might not be Verdi’s most sophisticated opera but when done well, as it was tonight, it’s a thoroughly entertaining evening.  At times it can feel disjointed, with the second half of the evening not quite matching up to the excitement of the first.  Tonight this was definitely not the case and I think this was due to the outstanding conducting of Paolo Arrivabeni and the Johan Reuter in the title role.

Arrivabeni was not scheduled to conduct this performance.  It’s not quite clear when he was asked to take over, but it certainly seems that it was at very short notice and it’s unclear whether he actually had any rehearsal time with the cast.  Surprisingly, other than a few tiny slips in ensemble with the chorus, it was sensational.  Indeed, combined with Nicola Luisotti’s conducting of the same score at the Royal Opera House earlier this year, I would go so far as to say that these were both the two finest examples of Verdi conducting I have heard.  Tempi were always swift and there seemed to be a great understanding between stage and pit.  He obtained quite magnificent playing from the orchestra and excellent singing from the chorus.  The entire cast seemed at one with this interpretation and it sounded like they had worked together from the very start.  Very impressive.

Johan Reuter’s Nabucco tonight gave a masterclass in Verdi singing.  His is perhaps not one of nature’s most Italianate sounding baritones.  Yet, he showed complete awareness of the style, effortless breath control and a total awareness of how to use his instrument to its best advantage.  The highlight was definitely his ‘dio di Giuda’ and the subsequent cabaletta both done with warm tone and an easy top.

Anna Smirnova’s Abigaille was more problematic.  She’s a fine singer in the right repertoire and I’m not sure this was it.  It’s a big, vibrant sound but she was far too prone to force it at the very top which meant it lost quality and pitch.  It was exciting singing, partly because one never quite knew what was going to happen next.  If she can get that under control she could certainly pull the role off.  Vitalij Kowaljow was a superb Zaccaria.  As with Reuter, he had a wonderful sense of line and fully dominated the stage when he sang.  Thomas Blondelle, singing the day after singing Macduff, showed many of the same issues he had in the other role.  A fundamentally attractive tone with a warm sense of line, ruined by pushing the voice beyond its natural limits.  The top and the middle of the voice are also not very well integrated.  I very much hope that he can get both of these under control as he is potentially a very fine lyric tenor.

A major new discovery for me was Ronnita Miller’s big and bold contralto.  Fenena is perhaps not the best role for her, lying as it does for a lyric soprano, but she sang beautifully.  Hulkar Sabirova impressed as Anna, dominating the top line of the ensembles, and I was also impressed by the firm bass of Marko Mimica as the High Priest of Baal, a singer I would like to hear more of.

The Deutsche Oper Chorus sang magnificently.  They have a unanimity of tone that really sets them apart and an amplitude that is striking. The orchestra again excelled themselves, providing a big, Technicolor performance perfectly matching the fervour of the piece.

Keith Warner’s staging was much more effective than Daniele Abbado’s at the Royal Opera House earlier this year.  His starting point was the development of the printing press and the thriving Jewish community in Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The problem was that there was no coherent narrative as to why the story had been transplanted to this period – who were the Babylonians and what relationship did the two groups have with each other?  It’s probably easier to say that rather than asking too many questions, taking the staging at face value meant that it was an enjoyable enough evening.  When one starts to consider the lack of logic in Warner’s Konzept it all starts to unravel.

Despite the questionable casting and equally questionable production, this was a highly enjoyable evening.  It was crowned by two superb performances in Nabucco and Zaccaria and a very promising new voice.  It was also exhilaratingly conducted.

Photo: (C) Bernd Uhlig


  1. Here is someone who can’t stand Nabucco… And honestly I think I agree with most of it:

    “And what exactly was wrong with it? What made it so excruciatingly bad? Shall I mention the perfectly empty orchestral writing—a collage of one cheap effect after another, the endless galloping runs up to some aria or end of an aria that you can see coming from a mile away, always with the same basic figures—either up the scale, sometimes down, sometimes up and down for extra excitement!? They, of course, last twice as long as even the most forgiving ears could tolerate. Then the big musical cues and signs: Here! Clap. Here! The end of this part.

    The pointless, self-serving high notes, held forever: vocal fireworks that serve no musical purpose and are only introduced to show off some singer and his or her vocal (dis)ability. The whole thing was sickening…”

    Read the full article here:


    • What I enjoy about early Verdi, especially when it’s done well as it was on Sunday evening, is that it is supremely thrilling. To see artists develop their technique and work hard to sing within a style that requires great technical command really is very impressive. Obviously, it can also be a bit painful if it isn’t quite up to scratch but the truth is that it can be a great night in the theatre.

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