Verdi and Nabucco

In 1876, the 66-year-old Giuseppe Verdi sat down and offered a remembrance of his early career, dictated to his publisher Giulio Ricordi. He considered the 1842 opera the true beginning of his artistic career. He had perhaps just experienced the lowest point of his life, a two-year period during which he lost his wife Margherita (Barezzi) and two children, Virginia and Icilio, all the while attempting to complete a comic opera, Un giorno di Regno, which ended in a spectacular failure. According to the composer he’d all but given up composing and delivered that message to Bartolomeo Merelli, the director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, even returning a libretto that Merelli had hoped would entice Verdi into writing a new piece for his forthcoming season. Director Merelli evidently had great faith in the young composer, as he persisted in attempts to interest him in a return to opera, finally offering him a libretto by the poet Temistocle Solera, Nabucodonosor, a drama set during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

According to Verdi, Merelli stuffed the libretto into his coat pocket and shoved him out the door of his office. Verdi took the poem back to his rooms and angrily threw the copy onto his desk: “It had fallen open, and without realizing it I gazed at the page and read the line: “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.” From here on out Verdi’s story takes on the atmosphere of a 1930s movie biography: “One day a verse, the next day another, at one time a note, at another a phrase. Little by little the opera was written.” One loathes to disbelieve an original source, but the composer’s tale just doesn’t have the ring of authenticity; rather, it has the aura of an old man remembering his past through the eyes of an experienced man of the theatre with an incredible ability to tell a great yarn. It’s difficult to accept that the libretto just happened to open to the page of what was to become the most successful number in the show, the great chorus “Va pensiero”, and that it was from this inspiring moment that the work was to eventually spring. Whatever the actual succession of events that led to the writing of Nabucodonosor (whose title was later shortened to Nabucco for a production in Venice), the opera does glow with an inspiration that neither the comedy Un giorno di Regno nor Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, his very first opera, had. By the time it was finished, Merelli, who’d promised to produce the opera immediately upon its completion, nearly had to back out on his promise as the 1842 season had already been fully formed and had three new operas in production. A fourth, with responsibility falling on the shoulders of a relatively untested young composer with no ‘hits’ under his belt, was a huge risk. Verdi argued, Merelli argued back, and finally the impresario agreed, with the caveat that the production and costumes would have to be pulled from older works in La Scala’s warehouses.

Verdi’s insistence on the 1842 season was based on the fact that Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano who would later become his wife, and Giorgio Ronconi, the baritone, were already signed for that season and the composer knew that they would do justice to the score, as well as bring a certain notoriety to the production. In the case of Strepponi he turned out to be (temporarily) wrong as she ended up being in ill health and bad voice for the prima . (Her final scene, the death of Abigaille, was dropped after the first two performances and a new soprano, Teresa De Giuli-Borsi, sang the revival the following winter. However, Strepponi was re-engaged for the premiere at Parma in 1843 and it was evidently a great success. By this time, her relationship with the composer was blooming.) Ronconi, however, had a success in the title role and the first audiences were evidently enthusiastic about the new work, applauding the newly re-painted scenery, the orchestra, the singers, the chorus and the composer who was now regaled as the composer for the Risorgimento, the ongoing political and cultural movement to unite the Italian peninsula as one country. When Nabucco returned for the fall season it played fifty-seven performances, quite a record for the time.

The impact of the chorus “Va, pensiero” on the Austrian-controlled audiences cannot be overstated. Northern Italians naturally identified with the Jews’ captivity by Babylon because their territories were now under the thumb of their neighbors across the Alps. In fact, there was a law against encores on the opera stage for the very reason that it might be cause for public demonstration against imperial rule. Despite that fact, the chorus was encored to great acclaim and the piece remains to this day an unofficial national anthem in Italy. (“Va pensiero” was sung spontaneously in the streets of Milan at Verdi’s funeral in 1901 by thousands of mourners who turned out in the streets to pay homage to the beloved composer.)

The Literary Sources of Nabucco

The opera Nabucco is, of course, based on the bible and the story of the Babylonian Captivity. In 586 BC the Kingdom of Judah, descending from David, was trampled by the Babylonians, the first Temple destroyed and the Jews captured and deported to Babylon where they were enslaved by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II. This was a watershed moment in the history and culture of the Jewish people as it also marked changes in the Hebrew alphabet, the end of the tribal system in favor of a community of clans, the fundamental significance of the Torah in Jewish worship and the rise of the scribes and sages as important leaders. When Babylon was conquered by the Persian Cyrus the Great nearly 50 years later, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. This event is referred to in various places in the bible but is most compactly described in 2 Kings 25:8-21. However, the Babylonian Captivity was psychologically devastating to the corporate personality of Judah and its influence can be found throughout the historical and prophetic books of the bible, especially the book of Jeremiah.

The libretto for the opera was fashioned by the Italian poet Temistocle Solera whose first operatic project was also Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, followed by Nabucco, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Giovanna d’Arco and Attila, which was only begun by him and finished by Piave. Solera’s source was a play by French dramatist August Anicet-Bourgeois, Nabuchodonosor and a ballet by Antonio Cortesi (also based on the French text) which was performed at La Scala in 1836. The ballet’s scenario presented Solera with important alterations that differed from the play and gave more dramatic interest to the libretto. The libretto was originally meant to be set by Otto Nicolai, composer of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lustigen Weibe von Windsor), who released it in favor of Verdi. Nabucco’s success brought forth this reaction from Nicolai: “Verdi is the Italian composer of today. He has set the libretto which I refected, and made his fortune with it. But his operas are absolutely dreadful and utterly degrading for Italy”. Little else is known about the origins of the libretto and its development as no correspondence seems to exist between Solera and Verdi from that time; like the relationship between Mozart and Da Ponte, they both lived in the same town and worked for the same theatre…therefore correspondence was unnecessary.
It is interesting to note the connection between the text for “Va pensiero” and Psalm 137 which comments specifically on the Babylonian event:  
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”
The text of “Va, pensiero, sull ali dorate”, sung by the Hebrew slaves in Part III, scene ii of the opera translates thus:
“Go, my thought, on golden wings; go, alight upon the slopes, the hills, where, soft and warm, the sweet breezes of our native land are fragrant! Greet the banks of the Jordan and Zion’s razed towers…Oh, my country so lovely and lost! Oh, remembrance so dear and ill-fated! Golden harp of the prophetic bards, why do you hang mute on the willow? Re-kindle the memories in our breasts, speak to us of the times of yore! Just as for the cruel fate of Jerusalem, intone a strain of bitter lamentation, otherwise let the Lord inspire you with a melody to give us strength to suffer!”

The Music of Verdi’s Nabucco

Verdi’s opera Nabucco, it must be remembered, was written and premiered during the last phase of the work of the three most important Italian composers of the day: Rossini (whose last opera, Guillaume Tell, had premiered in 1829), Donizetti (whose opera Maria Padilla preceded Nabucco at La Scala by a few months and whose last opera Dom Sébastien premiered in 1845) and Bellini (whose I Puritani premiered in 1835 and whose operas were a staple of La Scala during Verdi’s early years.) Therefore, the early 19th century traditions of operatic writing were demanded of the young composer, with the usual placement of double arias for the principal soloists, accompanied recitatives, ensembles and choruses. As has been pointed out by many scholars, the score is a mixture of music that fulfills the ordinary expectations of the contemporary audience and flashes of brilliance that mark the beginning of a major voice in Italian opera. The treatment of the chorus is especially remarkable in that it plays a significant role in every dramatic scene and is given music that is emotionally stirring for the listener. The Biblical paraphrase “Va, pensiero, sull ali dorate”, although it’s been mentioned many times, is a perfect example with a memorable melody and a structure that builds psychologically providing a cathartic moment that was rare for Italian opera at the time.
There are interesting orchestral textures in Nabucco, not least of which is the prayer of Zaccaria (a character patterned after the Biblical Jeremiah), which is unusually accompanied by six solo cellos. This gives the prayer (“Vieni o Levia…Tu sul labbro”) a standout quality that focuses on the importance of this character and underlines the pathetic position of the Hebrews in their captivity. Fascinating, though, is the absence of a principal tenor role (Ismaele is involved only in ensembles and recitative), the prominence of bass (Zaccaria) and baritone (Nabucco) roles and the unusual quality of the soprano role of Abigaille which, even to this day, makes casting her extremely difficult. This demanding part requires agility in the upper register, an unusually wide range of notes, and declamatory, dramatic power throughout. These are nearly impossible demands, and make one wonder what kind of qualities the original Abagaille, Giuseppina Strepponi, must’ve had! One need only listen to her double aria from Part II to realize this. The lyrical opening recitative and cavatina (“Anch’io dischioso un giorno” call not only for a two octave leap (at the end of the recitative) but tender coloratura in the aria itself. The cabaletta (“Salgo già del trono aurato”)after the interruption of the chorus is, in a word, insane: angular, rapidly-paced, with quick leaps from one register to another and scale passages that run from the top of the soprano’s range to the very bottom. These technical difficulties were probably carefully calculated by Verdi in order to reveal the ‘rough’ character of the register shifts that naturally occur in the voice of a dramatic soprano in attempting such athletic feats. This gives Abagaille an edgier, even more dramatic presentation, indeed forces a more dramatic presentation into the voice, assuring the audience of real fireworks onstage. The problem lies in the ability of an opera company to find a soprano whose voice can sustain the demands with a heft and color that will fill a large hall. In terms of Verdi’s later dramatic soprano roles, only the role of Lady Macbeth came close to matching and producing the same effects. (The roles of Leonora, Aida, Elisabetta, Violetta and Desdemona have their own issues!)

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