Drawing on one of history's deadliest dust-ups, two tribes go to war in Daniele Abbado's decidedly austere revival of Nabucco at the Royal Opera House, boasting an opera megastar in the title role.
At 75, and weighing in as a baritone rather than the tenor he once was, Placido Domingo is not the vigorous, triumphant conqueror you might expect, but he's certainly an enduring feast for the ears. The legendary voice is vital and penetrating, and in his final aria especially, still an exceptional instrument. It's a privilege to enjoy him, despite an awkward, audible prompt on two occasions.
Liudmyla Monastyrska, as usurping schemer Abigaille, wrestles with her coveted dramatic coloratura role. Her act one acrobatics are laboured and her blasts of power, precarious. In later scenes she settles well and convinces, but only at full tilt or forlorn whisper; the middle ground is messy.
Jamie Barton and stand-in tenor Jean-François Borras play lovers Fenena and Ismaele; the former in beautiful voice, the latter forgettable. John Relyea pitches Hebrew leader Zaccaria somewhere between Moses and Barry White, with a gelatinous bass that butters your bones.
The set moves from a regimented field of Talmudic, granite stalagmites to the grit, fire and idols of the conquering Assyrians, with dressing and clothing limited, intentionally it would seem, to shades of Holocaust grey and sun scorched dust. Pre-recorded bird's-eye action replays fill the background, adding a cinematic dimension to Verdi's biblical epic, but it distracts from (and adds nothing new to) the live park-and-bark below. A glistening Yul Brynner and some Godunov glitter would inject some much needed majesty.
The playing under Maurizio Benini is perilous and pastoral as required, but it's a tame interpretation of Verdi's flamboyant, Judah-via-Milan score. When they aren't mincing about, arriving late and bumping into each other, the chorus provide moments of sublime transportation; Va, pensiero is exquisite and they accompany the principals beautifully.
Ultimately, with the novelty of Domingo's electric presence aside, Nabucco is a volley of hits and misses. The promise of violent conquest and father-daughter smackdown is reduced to a sedate health and safety exercise, and is altogether too stationary to snag at the heartstrings.
Nabucco is on at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until 30 June. Tickets £47-£185. Londonist attended on a press ticket.