Verdi's Nabucco was the opera that gave the composer his first popular success. It was also the work that, in 1952, first established Welsh National Opera's reputation. The almighty power of the chorus, as they lament at the hands of Nabucco, is also therefore a reminder of the opera's symbolic status for the company. And, coming hot on the heels of another Stuttgart Opera collaboration, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, the phenomenal achievement of the WNO chorus in successive productions cannot be overstated; their acting and singing are fantastic.
Rudolf Frey's production was first staged in Stuttgart last year - it is bold in its contemporary setting and thrusting in dramatic attack. Yet its strengths are countered in equal measure by weaknesses, notably that the garish glitz in the fabric of the design seems tacky. The moment when David Kempster's Nabucco - King Nebuchadnezzar with Iggy Pop hair - fires a diamond-encrusted gun into the flies, bringing down a rain of golden confetti, is laughable. It may find its complement later when, in a representation of the falling false image of Baal, gold-lame curtains on all sides of the stage collapse in a heap, but the importance of such gestures detracts from the issues of faith and politics that are at the core of WNO's themed season. On a lesser scale, choreographic gestures - some military, others resembling over-emphatic sign language and hand jiving, executed with precision by the chorus - also deflect attention from the essential conflict. The production is encumbered with clutter.
Musically, the chorus and orchestra's triumph is paralleled by that of conductor Xian Zhang in her notable company debut. A dynamic presence in the pit, she captures Verdi's fiery passion, but also paces passages of emotional meltdown - not least the anthemic Va, Pensiero - with infinite care. Kevin Short's stentorian Zaccaria is equalled in stylishness by Mary Elizabeth Williams's Abigaille. A natural stage animal, her voice is initially unwieldy at its extremes, but the rich middle wins through. Justina Gringyte's Fenena is charged and Robin Lyn Evans's Ismaele makes his mark, while Kempster's Nabucco brings most impact to his Lear-like breakdown. If only glitter could confer greater enlightenment.
At Millennium Centre, Cardiff, from 8-14 June. Box office: 029-2063 6464. Then touring.
Garish glitz . . . Welsh National Opera perform Nabucco at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff Photograph: AT Schaefer