Spotlight On: NABUCCO

At Seattle Opera August 2015

Music by
Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by
Temistocle Solera

First Performed Milan, 1842 | In Italian with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short:
Mad king declares himself god. Evil daughter flatters him, but good daughter resists him and helps the Jews escape from bondage in Babylon.

Who’s Who?
, known in scripture as Nebuchadnezzar, is an arrogant Middle Eastern tyrant-warlord.

Abigaille, said to be Nabucco’s daughter, is a cunning, power-hungry, loveless bastard.

Fenena, a really lovely girl, is Nabucco’s daughter and heir to the throne of Babylon.

Ismaele, handsome prince of Judah, loves Fenena (and hopes to avoid Abigaille).

Zaccaria, high priest of Judah, is a fiery Old Testament prophet.

Where & When?
Ancient Jerusalem and Babylon, 587 BCE

What’s Going On?

Jerusalem is burning! The Babylonians, led by their fearsome King Nabucco, are sacking the city of David. They despise the Jewish God and the High Priest, Zaccaria, and intend to enslave all the Jews. Zaccaria has only one card left to play: he has captured Nabucco’s beloved daughter, Fenena, and hopes to use her as a hostage. But he makes a big mistake—he entrusts Fenena to Prince Ismaele, nephew of the king of Judah, not knowing that Ismaele loves Fenena. (They fell in love when Ismaele was once captive in Babylon. Fenena’s sister Abigaille also fell for Ismaele, but he rejected her, which only made her even more twisted and angry.) Ismaele protects Fenena from his people, giving Nabucco the opportunity to destroy the temple.

Later, back in Babylon, the rivalry between Fenena and Abigaille grows more intense. Fenena has already won the prince’s love; now she wins her father’s approval, when Nabucco appoints Fenena regent while he goes off to wage war. Secretly, Fenena’s love for Ismaele has led her to convert to Judaism. And worst of all, Abigaille discovers that Nabucco isn’t really her father—one of his wives betrayed him with a slave. She builds a faction of Jew-hating Babylonians loyal to her alone and picks a fight with Fenena. Just as the two sisters are about to destroy each other, Nabucco appears and tells both groups—Babylonians and Jews—they must abjure both Baal and Jehovah: he himself is now their only god. A thunderbolt strikes him down; the crown falls from his head and he goes mad. Abigaille grabs his crown and proclaims herself Queen of Babylon.

Her first move as Queen is to trick the confused Nabucco into signing an order condeming all the Jews—Fenena included—to death. When he figures out what he has done, Nabucco begs Abigaille to have mercy, but she has him thrown in prison. From a window he watches Fenena and the Jewish slaves, in chains, being led to their execution. Desperate, he prays to the God of the Jews for forgiveness. His strength and reason are restored; he escapes, gathers a band of loyal soldiers, regains his throne, punishes the traitors, and saves his beloved daughter. Abigaille confesses her crimes and begs for forgiveness as she dies. Nabucco declares he will free the Jews and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Costume design for Abigaille by Ginette Grenier for Seattle Opera's 2015 production

Christian Van Horn and the Seattle Opera Chorus sing the Prophecy sing from Nabucco, conducted by Carlo Montanaro

About the Composer
The greatest Italian composer of opera, Giuseppe Verdi was also a landowner and farmer; a philanthropist; an impossible, pessimistic, grumpy old stick-in-the-mud; and one of the founding fathers of the Italian nation. At the beginning of his life, Verdi was a simple peasant boy, the son of a humble country innkeeper, watching Napoleon’s troops flee the fields of northern Italy. At his funeral, eighty-eight years later, 300,000 people burst into song in the streets of Milan as the coffin of this grand old man of Italian opera approached its final resting place. Verdi’s music became the life and breath of a new nation and is still acknowledged by many to be the crowning achievement of a venerable and glorious art form.

Verdi painted by Boldini in 1886

Verdi was born in 1813, in a tiny hamlet named Le Roncole, south of Parma. In those days the peninsula of Italy was divided into many little kingdoms, all ruled from afar as part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Verdi was only a baby during the Napoleonic campaigns, during which Parma passed back and forth between France and Austria. One of Verdi’s earliest childhood memories was hiding in a church bell-tower with his mother while their town was being invaded by French troops.

The young man showed musical gifts at an early age. So Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy grocer from the nearby town of Busseto, took Verdi under his wing and paid for his schooling and music lessons. As a teenager, Verdi wrote for and conducted the Busseto Municipal Orchestra (not one of Italy’s leading musical groups!) and played the organ in church every Sunday in Le Roncole. And when he had absorbed everything Busseto had to offer, Verdi married Barezzi’s daughter Margherita and moved to Milan, the opera capital of the world, to continue his studies and try his hand at writing an opera. His first opera was a success. But Verdi’s son, daughter, and finally his wife all died while he was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, a comedy which flopped. The composer sank into a black depression from which he never really emerged. He swore he would never write another note and lost interest in everything.

Verdi in 1844

The general director of La Scala (the opera house in Milan) convinced Verdi to try his hand at a third opera, and in 1842 Verdi wrote Nabucco. The audience at the premiere went berserk and Verdi became a celebrity overnight. The success of this opera catapulted Verdi back into the composer’s seat. For the next 10 years, he roamed around Italy and Europe, pouring out a string of about 20 operas. These operas are all improbable stories of wild passion set to vigorous and thrilling music. Almost all of them feature sympathetic nationalists toiling under foreign domination, and Italian audiences, still languishing under Austrian rule, readily identified with the characters and passions in Verdi’s early operas. Over the years, Verdi became very good at outwitting government censors who objected to his presenting certain kinds of situations (chiefly the murder of kings) onstage.

At the end of his years “in the galleys,” as Verdi once called them, the 37-year-old composer bought a farm near Busseto and moved there with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former opera singer whose voice had been ruined. The Verdi-Strepponi relationship (not a marriage) horrified the conservative people of Busseto, especially if (as one biographer has suggested) the couple gave a child up for adoption. Verdi even ended up disowning his own parents and kicking them out of his house. As his family life was (for the second time) embroiled in catastrophe, Verdi penned three of the greatest operas of all time, all of which scrutinize tormented relationships between parents and children: Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.

Verdi lived near Busseto in his villa, called Sant’Agata, for the rest of his life, though he made frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Venice, Genoa (his favorite city in Italy), Paris, and places further abroad to oversee premieres of his operas. In 1861 he wrote the opera La forza del destino for St. Petersburg and spent two winters in Russia preparing the first performance. One of his greatest operas, Aida--set in ancient Egypt--received its world premiere in Cairo, not long after the opening of the Suez Canal.

When Italy finally united itself as a nation under King Victor Emmanuel II, Verdi was one of the first members of the Italian parliament. He demonstrated his patriotism again by writing a magnificent Requiem in honor of the important Italian novelist and patriot Alessandro Manzoni.

In his last 20 years, Verdi spent much of his time working on his farm. He also founded a retirement home for musicians in downtown Milan; to this day former opera singers and instrumentalists fill its halls. Verdi wrote only one opera in the 1880s and one in the 1890s: Otello and Falstaff, considered by many his greatest operas and the respective pinnacles of Italian tragic and comic opera.

The Osteria at Le Roncole, where Verdi grew up

What’s in a Name?
The name Giuseppe Verdi translates easily into English as “Joseph Green.” (Close friends called him “Peppino,” something along the lines of “Joey.”) The composer’s middle names, Francesco and Fortunino, mean Frank and Lucky.

Weston Hurt sings Nabucco's Mad Scene, with the orchestra of Seattle Opera conducted by Carlo Montanaro

A Mad King Onstage
The arrogant Old Testament king Nebuchadnezzar is a wonderful villain, a character we love to hate. In the Bible he builds a golden statue of himself and commands everyone to worship it; he tries to punish three Jews by throwing them into a burning fiery furnace (they’re not even singed); and he goes mad and spends seven years living like an animal in the wild.

Nebuchadnezzar drawn by William Blake

In the Middle Ages, when most Europeans were illiterate, people learned Bible stories by listening carefully to sermons, looking at the magnificent paintings that decorated their churches, and also by watching plays. Theater didn’t disappear entirely between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance: wandering theatrical troupes kept it alive, and sometimes entire communities got into the spirit of “Let’s put on a show.” Sacred or Biblical subjects provided material for these mystery plays and passion plays. Plays about Nebuchadnezzar, his crimes and his punishment, were extremely popular for centuries. In the hands of competent actors and stage technicians, such dramas simultaneously entertain people and shore up their faith.

King Lear and his Fool rage against the storm

Starting about 1607, Shakespeare’s King Lear usurped Nebuchadnezzar’s role as the archetypal mad king in drama. The original ending of King Lear is about as painful and tragic as it gets, and the play became more popular when a happy ending was tacked on, some decades after Shakespeare. In 1836 Lear inspired two French playwrights, August Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu, to revisit Nebuchadnezzar and to give him two daughters, one good and one evil. (You won’t find the daughters in the Bible; but you will find them in King Lear.) Transformed into a ballet, this Nabuchodonosor was presented at La Scala, the important theater in Milan.

Wanting to reuse the costumes and sets he’d had constructed for the ballet, Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, had the French play adapted into a libretto for an Italian opera. Merelli offered this libretto first to an important German composer, Otto von Nicolai, who rejected it. So Merelli looked at his list of composers, remembered that young Giuseppe Verdi still owed him an opera, and gave Verdi the libretto. Thus a mighty career commenced.

The opening chorus from Nabucco at Seattle Opera, conducted by Carlo Montanaro

Verdi and King Lear
When Giuseppe Verdi traveled, he liked to have a Bible and a complete Shakespeare placed next to his bed. The Bible was standard reading for Catholic Italians; but Shakespeare’s plays first became available in Italian in Verdi’s youth. Verdi, who never learned English, knew Shakespeare’s Italian translator and saw productions of Shakespeare when he was in England. His lifelong love affair with the Bard led him to write operas on Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff.

King Lear was the Shakespeare play which haunted Verdi all his life. Fascinated by the figure of the mad king who finally discovers his own humanity as a ‘foolish, fond old man,’ Verdi tried several times to turn King Lear into an Italian opera. His letters are full of plans for this Re Lear, and he went so far as to have librettos drafted and to begin writing music. But he was never happy with the result. Better not to complete such a work, Verdi felt, than to risk diminishing mighty Shakespeare.

Ian McKellen and colleague as King Lear and Gloucester

But King Lear turns up, in curious ways, in other works by Verdi. Before he began writing operas, Verdi had written an apprentice piece, a cantata about Saul, another mad king from the Old Testament who has problems with his kids. Saul was a warm-up act for Nabucco, Verdi’s first great operatic success, a work which draws equally on the Old Testament, King Lear, and contemporary Italian politics. The family dynamics of King Lear, which concerns foolish, overbearing parents and the disobedient children they love, influenced dozens of Verdi operas to come—and inspired his many fantastic duets for baritone and soprano, father and daughter.

The Seattle Opera chorus and orchestra perform "Va, pensiero", directed by Carlo Montanaro

An Anthem for Italy
The famous chorus “Va, pensiero” is always a highlight of a Nabucco performance. Musically, it is simple, strong, powerful; once heard, never forgotten, like a wonderful folk song. Theatrically, it’s a masterstroke; it comes at the perfect moment in the opera, its straighforward simplicity offering agreeable relief following an excruciating confrontation between Nabucco and Abigaille. What no one could have predicted, when the opera premiered in 1842, was “Va, pensiero’s” political power.

The chorus is sung by a chain-gang of Jewish slaves, toiling away on the banks of the Euphrates river in what is now Iraq, wistfully remembering the beauty of their homeland in Zion. “Oh, my country, so lovely, so lost...” they sing. “Let music bring us the strength to endure this exile.” Verdi’s compassion for refugees, slaves, and displaced persons has as much resonance today as it did in 1842.

“Va, pensiero” was immediately understood as a metaphorical way to talk about Italian unification. There was no Italy in 1813 when Verdi was born. But between 1815 and about 1870, people living in the peninusla threw off external influence (whether French, Austrian, Spanish, or even Papal) and organized a new nation. “Va, pensiero” became the unofficial anthem of the struggle for Italian independence. Verdi’s name became an underground political slogan, because the letters formed an acronym for Vittorio Emmanuel, Re DItalia (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). When people screamed “Viva Verdi!” or scribbled graffiti with those words on Austrian police stations, they were both advocating a political agenda and sharing their enthusiasm for opera! Verdi himself wrote lots more patriotic operas, did everything he could to help widows, orphans, and others hurt by the wars of Italian independence, and became a senator in the first Italian parliament. To this day, “Va, pensiero” still functions as an unofficial national anthem in Italy.

The tune of Nabucco's famous chorus

The Music of Nabucco

Gordon Hawkins and Mary Elizabeth Williams sing the conclusion of the Act 3 duet, conducted by Carlo Montanaro

Verdi came of age during the era of bel canto: singers’ opera, when composers such as Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti used strict musical forms to show off the tremendous vocal skills of their singers and to decorate human emotions with elegant and eloquent vocal expression. The hallmark of a bel canto opera is the standardized slow/fast structure. Each aria, each ensemble begins with a slow movement, in which the singer expresses a gentle emotion—regret, affection, yearning, etc.—until some plot twist (communicated very quickly, usually as parlando or ‘connective tissue music’) inspires them to sing a fast movement about a more vigorous emotion—fury, passion, lust, etc. Bel canto drama is stylized, not realistic; the plot proceeds in quick little jumps, and it’s almost as if the music is able to press ‘pause’ on a stopwatch, so each aria can explore the emotion(s) the characters are experiencing at that moment of the story.

Verdi, a young man from the sticks with plenty of talent but neither money nor powerful backers, wanted above all to succeed as an opera composer, to become accepted among the movers and shakers of the opera world. So he started out by writing unremarkable, standard bel canto works (his first two operas, Oberto and Un giorno di regno). But a personal crisis realigned his priorities, and in his third opera, Nabucco, the world first heard his own voice.

Verdi grew up among simple people, and he wasn’t a natural when it came to the elegance and refinement of aristocratic bel canto music. Instead, his music has straightforward melody and blood-and-thunder power. Nabucco, though organized by its librettist into the slow-fast movements of a standard bel canto opera, is brimming over with Verdi’s musical personality. The overture begins with a beautiful hymn, voiced by the brass; then we hear the thundering armies of Nebuchadnezzar, storming the city of Jerusalem. The vocals range from the daunting coloratura madness of Abigaille’s twisted passion, to the innocent faith with which Fenena goes to her martyrdom, to the rousing fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of the prophet Zaccaria, to Nabucco’s uncontrollable fury, madness, frenzy, and abject humiliation. Although Verdi’s music would become much more refined later on in his career, there was no denying that with Nabucco, a new voice had emerged. It caught on like wildfire with the public, and before long Verdi was a rich man. The conservatives sighed; clearly, the sun was setting on the era of bel canto.

Recommended Recordings
Deutsche Gramophon, 1984 (Giuseppe Sinopoli, with Piero Cappucilli, Ghena Dimitrova, Evgeny Nesternko)

Decca, 1965 (Lamberto Gardelli, with Tito Gobbi, Elena Suliotis, Carlo Cava)

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