In Verdi’s biblical opera the Babylonian king Nabucco is struck down by Jehovah for having blasphemously declared himself a deity. He is reduced, like King Lear, to a mad pitiful outcast without a throne and his beloved daughter Fenena threatened with execution.
As the repentant Nabucco’s moral stature grew so too did the depth of baritone David Kempster’s portrayal. As the swaggering tyrant he was compromised since under pressure a wide vibrato edged toward the dreaded wobble. He excelled in the quieter and more intimate later scenes with his power-hungry daughter Abigaille, the stupendous Mary Elizabeth Williams.
She was the star turn, relishing this vocally fearsome role and emphasizing the tigerish ferocity which made her a memorable WNO Tosca. In Rudolf Frey’s often irritating production – a combination of grim 60s agitprop and 70s glam – she evinced a gift for comedy: although her antics when gaining the crown of Babylon better fitted a high school Prom Queen. Frey turned Ismaele (Robyn Lyn Evans) into a bespectacled nerd but both he and Fenena (Justina Gringyte) were vocally assured and a pleasure to hear.
Kevin Short’s high priest Zaccaria was more secure at the bottom than the top of his vocal register but was always a pugnaciously dramatic presence. Verdi lavished attention on Nabucco’s choral music and the WNO’s wonderful chorus responded with a show-stopping Va, pensiero.
The WNO orchestra under Xian Zhang gave a crisp, swift and rhythmically precise performance with the accompaniment for six solo cellos to Zaccaria’s aria especially memorable.