2013 is coming to an end and we are going to remember the BEST of this year: Verdi vs Wagner, the Operas!
Celebrating Verdi’s bicentennial!
Nabucco is an Italian-language opera in four acts composed in 1841 by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Temistocle Solera.
The libretto is based on the Biblical story and the 1836 play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue, although Antonio Cortese’s ballet adaptation of the play (with its necessary simplifications), given at La Scala in 1836, was a more important source for Solera than the play itself.
Under its original name of Nabucodonosor, the opera was first performed at La Scala in Milan on 9 March 1842.
Nabucco is the opera which is considered to have permanently established Verdi’s reputation as a composer. He commented that “this is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star.”
It follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered, and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (in English, Nebuchadnezzar).
The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known number from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” / “Fly, thought, on golden wings,” a chorus which is regularly given an encore in many opera houses when performed today.
The success of Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto”, resulted in Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, offering Verdi a contract for three more works.
After the failure of his second opera “Un giorno di regno” in 1840, written during a period when his wife and two children died, he vowed never to compose again.
While Verdi, in “An Autobiographical Sketch” written in 1879, tells the story of how he came to be twice persuaded by Merelli to change his mind and to write the opera, the distance of 38 years from the event may have led to a somewhat romanticized view (or, as Verdi scholar Julian Budden puts it: “he was concerned to weave a protective legend about himself (since) it was all part of his fierce independence of spirit”.
But writing ten years closer to the event, Michele Lessona in Volere è potere (“Where there’s a will …”), gives a very different version of the events after having been told the story by Verdi himself.
After a chance meeting with Merelli close to La Scala, the impresario gave him a copy of Temistocle Solera’s libretto which had been rejected by the composer Otto Nicolai.
Verdi describes how he took it home, and threw “it on the table with an almost violent gesture. … In falling, it had opened of itself; without my realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: ‘Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate’ ”
While it has been noted that “Verdi read it enthusiastically” (and certainly he states that, while he attempted to sleep, he was kept awake and read and re-read the libretto three times), others have stated that he read the libretto very reluctantly or, as recounted by Lessona, that he “threw the libretto in a corner without looking at it anymore, and for the next five months he carried on with his reading of bad novels … (when) towards the end of May he found himself with that blessed play in his hands: he read the last scene over again, the one with the death of Abigaille (which was later cut), seated himself almost mechanically at the piano … and set the scene to music.”
Nevertheless, Verdi still refused to compose the music, taking the manuscript back to the impresario the next day.
But Merelli would accept no refusal and he immediately stuffed the papers back into Verdi’s pocket and “not only threw me out of his office, but slammed the door in my face and locked himself in.”
Verdi claims that gradually he worked on the music: “This verse today, tomorrow that, here a note, there a whole phrase, and little by little the opera was written” so that by the autumn of 1841 it was complete. At the very least, both Verdi’s and Lessona’s versions end with a complete score.
The opening performances, limited to only eight because the season was coming to an end, were “a colossal success.”
But, when the new season opened on 13 August 1842, about an additional 60 performances had been added by the end of that year.
Numerous Italian and foreign theatres put on this opera in the years immediately following, including La Fenice in Venice in December 1842.
In 1843 Donizetti conducted it in Vienna, and other stagings took place that year in Lisbon and Caligari. But the definitive name of Nabucco for the opera (and its protagonist) was first used at a performance at the San Giacomo Theatre of Corfu in September, 1844.
Nonetheless, a more plausible alternative for the establishment of this abbreviated form claims that it was the result of a revival of the opera in Teatro Giglio of Lucca.
The opera was first given in London at His Majesty’s Theatre on 3 March 1846 under the name of Nino, since the depiction of biblical characters on stage “was not considered proper”. In the US it appeared in New York on 4 April 1848.
20th century and beyond:
Although not as frequently performed as some of Verdi’s other operas, Nabucco is still frequently heard around the world today. It has been on the Metropolitan Opera’s roster since it was first presented there during the 1960/61 season. It is the only early Verdi opera, apart from Ernani and Luisa Miller, which has received regular performances at the Met in recent times, having been presented in 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005.
Nabucco is also regularly performed at the Arena di Verona, where it was presented in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011.
Amongst the performances preserved on DVD are those at the Arena di Verona (1981 and 2007); La Scala (1987), Opera Australia (1996), Vienna State Opera (2001), Metropolitan Opera (2002), Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice (2004), Teatro Municipale di Piacenza (2004), and Austria’s St. Margarethen Opera Festival (2007).
Many other companies have also performed it, including San Francisco Opera in 1982, Sarasota Opera in 1995, London’s Royal Opera House in 1996, the New National Theatre Tokyo in 1998, Teatro Colón in 2000, Baltimore Opera in 2006, and the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2008 as part of their on-going “Festival Verdi”.
Nabucco was presented by the Michigan Opera Theatre and the San Diego Opera as part of their 2009–2010 seasons.
The Israeli Opera celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010 with Nabucco at Masada. The opera has been performed at the Bolshoi Theatre each year since 2006.
It was performed at London’s Royal Opera House in March 2013 in a new co-production with La Scala, directed by Daniele Abbado.
The soprano role of Abigaille has been perceived as the downfall of a number of singers. Elena Souliotis and Anita Cerquetti sang it before they were ready and its high tessitura arguably damaged their voices.
Certainly, their careers were not long ones. Maria Callas sang it only three times; only a live performance from 1949 was recorded. (It is interesting to hear that in this recording ‘Va pensiero’ was interrupted by much shouting but the chorus carried on. When it was repeated the audience was silent and then at the end they showed enthusiastic applause.)
While Leontyne Price and Dame Joan Sutherland refused to sing Abigaille, Cristina Deutekom, Marisa Galvany, Ghena Dimitrova, Dunja Vejzovic, Hilda Holzl, Jadranka Jovanovic and Maria Guleghina, have all been recent exponents of the role.
In April 2013 the Royal Opera House in London presented a live performance, featuring Plácido Domingo, linked to simultaneous worldwide cinema broadcasts.
Act 1 Jerusalem
‘Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I shall deliver this city into the hand of the King of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire’ (Jeremiah 21:10)
Interior of the Temple of Solomon
The Israelites pray as the Babylonian army advances on their city (Gli arredi fesivi giù cadano infranti / “Throw down and destroy all festive decorations”). The High Priest Zaccaria tells the people not to despair but to trust in God (D’Egitto là su i lidi / “On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses”). The presence of a hostage, Fenena, younger daughter of Nabucco, King of Babylon, may yet secure peace (Come notte a sol fulgente / “Like darkness before the sun”). Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon. Left alone, Fenena and Ismaele recall how they fell in love when Ismaele was held prisoner by the Babylonians, and how Fenena helped him to escape to Israel. Nabucco’s supposed elder daughter, Abigaille, enters the temple with Babylonian soldiers in disguise. She, too, loves Ismaele. Discovering the lovers, she threatens Ismaele: if he does not give up Fenena, Abigaille will accuse her of treason. If Ismaele returns Abigaille’s love, however, Abigaille will petition Nabucco on the Israelites’ behalf. Ismaele tells Abigaille that he cannot love her and she vows revenge. Nabucco enters with his warriors (Viva Nabucco / “Long live Nabucco”). Zaccaria defies him, threatening to kill Fenena if Nabucco attacks the temple. Ismaele intervenes to save Fenena, which removes any impediment from Nabucco destroying the temple. He orders this, while Zaccaria and the Israelites curse Ismaele as a traitor.
Act 2: The Impious One
‘Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked’ (Jeremiah 30:23)
Scene 1: Royal apartments in Babylon
Nabucco has appointed Fenena regent and guardian of the Israelite prisoners, while he continues the battle against the Israelites. Abigaille has discovered a document that proves she is not Nabucco’s real daughter, but the daughter of slaves. She reflects bitterly on Nabucco’s refusal to allow her to play a role in the war with the Israelites and recalls past happiness (Anch’io dischiuso un giorno / “I too once opened my heart to happiness”). The High Priest of Baal informs Abigaille that Fenena has released the Israelite captives. He plans for Abigaille to become ruler of Babylon, and with this intention has spread the rumour that Nabucco has died in battle. Abigaille determines to seize the throne (Salgo già del trono aurato / “I already ascend the [bloodstained] seat of the golden throne”).
Scene 2: A room in the palace
Zaccaria reads over the Tablets of Law (Vieni, o Levita / “Come, oh Levite! [Bring me the tables of the law]”), then goes to summon Fenena. A group of Levites accuse Ismaele of treachery. Zaccaria returns with Fenena and his sister Anna. Anna tells the Levites that Fenena has converted to Judaism, and urges them to forgive Ismaele. Abdallo, a soldier, announces the death of Nabucco and warns of the rebellion instigated by Abigaille. Abigaille enters with the High Priest of Baal and demands the crown from Fenena. Unexpectedly, Nabucco himself enters; pushing through the crowd, he seizes the crown and declares himself not only king of the Babylonians but also their god. The high priest Zaccaria curses him and warns of divine vengeance; an incensed Nabucco in turn orders the death of the Israelites. Fenena reveals to him that she has embraced the Jewish religion and will share the Israelites’ fate. Nabucco is furious and repeats his conviction that he is now divine (Non son più re, son dio / “I am no longer King! I am God!”). There is a crash of thunder and Nabucco promptly loses his senses. The crown falls from his head and is picked up by Abigaille, who pronounces herself ruler of the Babylonians.
Act 3: The Prophecy
‘Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein’. (Jeremiah 50:39)
Scene 1: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Abigaille is now Queen of Babylon. The High Priest of Baal presents her with the death warrant for the Israelites, as well as for Fenena. Nabucco, still insane, tries to reclaim the throne without success. Though his consent to the death warrant is no longer necessary, Abigaille tricks him into signing it. When Nabucco learns that he has consigned his (true) daughter to death, he is overcome with grief and anger. He tells Abigaille that he is not in fact her father and searches for the document evidencing her true origins as a slave. Abigaille mocks him, produces the document and tears it up.
Realizing his powerlessness, Nabucco pleads for Fenena’s life (Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto / “Oh, what shame must my old head suffer”). Abigaille is unmoved and orders Nabucco to leave her.
Scene 2: The banks of the River Euphrates
The Israelites long for their homeland (Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate / “Fly thought on golden wings; [Fly and settle on the slopes and hills]”). The high priest Zaccaria once again exhorts them to have faith: God will destroy Babylon. The Israelites are inspired by his words.
Act 4: The Broken Idol
‘Bel is confounded, Merodach is broken pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.’ (Jeremiah 50:2)
Scene 1: The royal apartments, Babylon
Nabucco awakens, still confused and raving. He sees Fenena in chains being taken to her death. In despair, he prays to the God of the Hebrews. He asks for forgiveness, and promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and convert to Judaism if his prayers are answered (Dio di Giuda / “God of Judah! [The altar, your sacred Temple, shall rise again]”). Miraculously, his strength and reason are immediately restored. Abdallo and loyal soldiers enter to release him. Nabucco resolves to rescue Fenena and the Israelites as well as to punish the traitors.
Scene 2: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Fenena and the Israelite prisoners are led in to be sacrificed (Va! La palma del martirio / “Go, win the palm of martyrdom”). Fenena serenely prepares for death. Nabucco rushes in with Abdallo and other soldiers. He declares that he will rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and worship the God of the Israelites, ordering the destruction of the idol of Baal. At his word, the idol falls to the ground of its own accord and shatters into pieces. Nabucco tells the Israelites that they are now free and all join in praise of Jehovah. Zaccaria proclaims Nabucco the servant of God and king of kings. Abigaille enters, supported by soldiers. She has poisoned herself. She begs forgiveness of Fenena, prays for God’s mercy and dies.
The opera was an instant success, dominating Donizetti’s and Giovanni Pacini’s operas playing nearby. While the public went mad with enthusiasm, the critics tempered their approval of the opera.
One critic who found Nabucco revolting was Otto Nicolai, the composer to whom the libretto was first offered.
A Prussian, Nicolai felt at odds with emotional Italian opera while he lived near Milan. After refusing to accept the libretto proposal from Merelli, Nicolai began work on another offer called Il Proscritto.
Its disastrous premiere in March 1841 forced Nicolai to cancel his contract with Merelli and return to Vienna. From there he learned of the success of Nabucco and was enraged. “Verdi’s operas are really horrible,” he wrote. “He scores like a fool — technically he is not even professional — and he must have the heart of a donkey and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer … Nabucco is nothing but “rage, invective, bloodshed and murder.”
However, Nicolai’s opinions were in the minority and, today, he has become comparatively obscure. Nabucco secured Verdi’s success until his retirement from the theatre, twenty-nine operas (including some revised and updated versions) later.
Music historians have long perpetuated a powerful myth about the famous Va, pensiero chorus sung in the third act by the Hebrew slaves. Scholars have long believed the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the slaves’ powerful hymn of longing for their homeland, demanded an encore of the piece. As encores were expressly forbidden by the government at the time, such a gesture would have been extremely significant.
However, recent scholarship puts this and the corresponding myth of Va, pensiero as the national anthem of the Risorgimento to rest. Although the audience did indeed demand an encore, it was not for “Va, pensiero” but rather for the hymn “Immenso Jehova,” sung by the Hebrew slaves to thank God for saving His people. In light of these new revelations, Verdi’s position as the musical figurehead of the Risorgimento has been correspondingly downplayed.
At Verdi’s funeral, the crowds in the streets spontaneously broke into “Va, pensiero”.