This banner proclaims: “People from 29 nations work under this roof.”
The roof in question is the one on the city theater in Mönchengladbach, Germany, and the banner serves to remind us that these local and regional theaters are actually quite international places, with singers, actors, musicians, dancers and stage hands from countries all over the world.
At the end of the last performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, the theater’s general manager interrupted the applause to honor one of the singers who was retiring after a 45-year stage career, a tenor from Poland who had sung as a soloist for two decades before joining the chorus of the Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach in the 1990s.
Mönchengladbach is a city of some 260,0000 people located halfway between Düsseldorf and the border to the Netherlands. It is well-known in Germany for its football (= soccer) team Borussia Mönchengladbach — ‘Borussia’ being the Latin name for Prussia, which this region belonged to starting in 1815.
All you loyal readers of my post Opera in Krefeld might recall that the Krefeld Theater was merged with the theater of nearby Mönchengladbach as early as 1906, but they have been divided and re-merged at least twice since then. The current merger dates from 1950. Together, they somehow manage to put on excellent opera performances in addition to musicals, drama and ballet. Each production is shown several times in both cities.
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera. It was his first huge success, and made him famous throughout Italy. The Hebrew prisoners’ chorus, Va Pensiero, became the unofficial anthem of the Italian independence movement in the 19th century. The story, from the Old Testament, pitted the Jews and their prophet Zaccaria against the Babylonians under King Nabucco.
The production I saw in Mönchengladbach attempted to generalize the story to some extent, making it not specifically the Jews against the Babylonians but one family clan against another, in a setting that could have been any time and anywhere.
During the overture the curtain went up to show a silent scene that was described in the program booklet as “the burial of an ancestor within the extended family to which the ancestors of Nabucco and Zaccaria belong” — but I’m not sure I would have known this if I hadn’t read the program booklet beforehand. The two branches of this extended family seemed to have different ideas of how the burial should be conducted, with one side putting little stones on the grave (a Jewish custom) and the other side placing a wreath with a ribbon. These differences (along with others that I’m not sure I understood) led to “a power struggle and split” of the two family clans.
In the foreground of this scene were two adolescents. The boy, who was perhaps supposed to be Zaccaria or maybe Ismaele, had a big book and was trying to convert the girl, most likely Fenena but perhaps Abigaille, to his religion, but she showed clearly that she wasn’t interested. Soon the two of them had a mock sword fight, the boy using a wooden sword and the girl using a wooden staff. I’m not at all sure I understood the significance of this, though the same wooden sword and staff reappeared later, towards the end of the opera.
This was an ambitious staging of Nabucco. It certainly held my attention throughout the evening and gave me a lot to think about afterwards. In retrospect, however, I think it would have been more powerful if it had been left in its original Old Testament setting, especially as regards Nabucco’s treatment of his two daughters. A low point of the staging was a family film (DVD, actually) showing Nabucco as a young suburban father playing in the garden with his two little daughters. The older daughter (Abigaille) seemed to be bullying the younger one (Fenena), and Nabucco intervened repeatedly on the side of the younger one, who was obviously his favorite.
Another low point was Abigaille’s behavior during her brief reign as Queen (of wherever), when she started groping the young male dancers who were performing in her honor. I’m sure some people found this a brilliant scene, sort of #MeToo in reverse, but I thought it just made her look silly.
An unusual aspect of this production was that they played recordings of several short spoken texts, in German, between some of the scenes. I knew from the program booklet that these texts were from Shakespeare’s King Lear, though I don’t think I would have recognized them otherwise. This was an interesting idea because there really are some similarities between Nabucco and Lear (their daughters, their descent into insanity), but I don’t think it would be justified to equate the two of them. Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the dramatic masterpieces of world literature, whereas the libretto of Nabucco would never be able to stand on its own, without Verdi’s music. It’s no accident that Verdi at age 29 could compose a successful Nabucco opera, but that he struggled for the rest of his life to write an opera based on King Lear and never succeeded.
All in all, I thought this was a fascinating opera production, even though there were some bits I found unconvincing and some I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again (maybe next year in Krefeld), so as to pick up on more of the details.
Mönchengladbach, by the way, was my 62nd German opera house. I hope to get around to the other twenty-six in the next few years.
Watch the trailer for Nabucco in Mönchengladbach.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: Sixty-two opera houses in Germany.