Grandest Opera

Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most consequential opera composers of the 19th century, faced severe hardships early in his career: professional disasters and the tragic deaths of his wife and children. He responded to these difficulties by producing the opera Nabucco, a retelling of the life of King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of the ancient Israelites. The unconventional composition proved to be an international smash, cementing Verdi’s reputation. Here, the eminent music critic Norman Lebrecht talks about the roots of this opera’s great emotional power — and its worrying resonance in today’s political climate.

Plácido Domingo sings the title role in Verdi's Nabucco.

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. Plácido Domingo sings the title role in Verdi’s Nabucco.

In 1841, the composer Giuseppe Verdi faced an existential choice. His beloved wife Margherita had died the previous year of encephalitis. His two children by her had died the year before that. He was under contract with La Scala, then as now one of the world’s premiere destinations for opera — and his most recent opera, Un giorno de regno, had closed after a single performance.

He was alone, with failure behind him and the prospect of more devastating failure before him. Another fiasco would have killed at its very beginning the career of the man who went on to transform Italian opera. Fortunately for us, amid all this darkness Verdi composed an opera that would make his name: Nabucco, an opera of sublime power taking liberation and subjection as its great themes. Norman Lebrecht says, about the career-making work that emerged from Verdi’s crucible year, “Nabucco is the coming of age of Verdi. The first two operas — Oberto and Un giorno — hardly belong to the canon.”

Nabucco relates the misadventures of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco is a truncated version of the work’s original eponymous title, Nabucodonosor) in his war against the Israelites. In the course of the struggle, Nabucco veers from the heights of hubristic madness to the depths of humility — and the Israelites, though their temple has been destroyed by the King’s command, find themselves released by his order at the opera’s end. A family drama plays out amid all this political furore. Nabucco’s ambitious and cold-hearted daughter Abigaille takes advantage of her father’s divinely inflicted loss of reason to appoint herself queen, while his other daughter Fenena, a paragon of filial duty, suffers adversities. The opera concludes with a restoration of the moral order: Abigaille dead by her own hand, Nabucco converted to Judaism, peace concluded between the Babylonians and the Israelites, and Babylon’s captive Jews freed. This is, of course, a complete fantasy. The real history of the Babylonian exile was much uglier and did not end until the fall of Babylon to Cyrus II, and no Babylonian emperor was likely to have considered the idea of conversion.

Nabucco was an unqualified success, running for 60 performances the year after its premiere, a number unequalled by any of its creator’s later works. Within three years, it had become an international phenomenon, reaching theaters across Europe. Why? Lebrecht locates two possible sources of its appeal in both its subject matter and its  protagonist. By taking up material “outside the usual range of Scriptural reference,” Verdi found a “kind of universality. He had touched something in the Italian soul.” That universality, says Lebrecht, was a lifelong desideratum for Verdi. In his works, there is always a character that “represents all of us,” says Lebrecht. “In Otello, it’s Violeta. In Nabucco, it is Nabucco himself — a powerful, aging figure (portrayed with astonishing prescience, given the composer’s youth) pulled in different directions by rival daughters.” Lebrecht notes the structural similarities to Shakespeare’s King Lear and suggests that Nabucco was, so to speak, Verdi’s Lear — which may explain why he never wrote, despite his fascination with Shakespeare, an opera explicitly based on that play.

Nabucco takes up a most potent array of subjects and deploys them to tremendous effect. The violent inner life of the family, the terrible price of political power, the struggle of oppressed peoples, the potence of a seemingly absent God: Verdi weaves all of these mighty and thorny questions into the finished work. Lebrecht describes it as a “standalone work” when considered against the background of Verdi’s total career. This Lebrecht sees as a series of “not peaks and troughs, but peaks and plateaus.” Its theme of liberation found an echo in the liberty it granted its composer, who, Lebrecht points out, no longer “had to think about going back to the village:” the place of his birth to an innkeeper and a wool-worker, Le Roncole in the Emilia-Romagna.

Nabucco’s premiere is not a milestone — it is a thousand-milestone.”

—Norman Lebrecht

But its importance to the history of opera as a form is impossible to overstate. “Its premiere,” says Lebrecht, “is not a milestone — it is a thousand-milestone. Italian opera is fundamentally trivial until Verdi comes along. With Verdi it acquires grandeur and meaning. It is not at all a contentious statement to say that Verdi stands head and shoulders above all Italian composers.” The opera itself is indeed imbued with grandeur and meaning. From its magisterial overture, possessed of an astonishing emotional and technical ambition — an ambition all the more astonishing considering that Verdi was 28 when he started work on the opera — to its shattering finale, Nabucco distills what its composer must himself have been feeling: hope and despair, loss and the possibility of redemption. Its best known aria, Va’ pensiero, is sung by a chorus of Hebrew slaves and draws inspiration from Psalm 137, the great Biblical lament over the Babylonian exile (By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept). And Va’ pensiero, arguably, is the purest and most powerful expression of that emotional dualism to be found in Nabucco. The aria, with its lilting waltz time and sighing strings, is deceptively simple in its opening but swells into a powerful, if slightly subdued, assertion of longing and of belief in the possibility of freedom. It speaks not only to the past but also the present, to the plight of Europe’s marginalized Jews (ironically beginning to enter more and more into the Continent’s cultural life in the years preceding the composition of Nabucco) and more generally to the hopes of would-be citizens denied their rights the world over — with a special attraction, as Lebrecht points out, for the nascent patriots of a new Italy. “The Risorgimento,” he says, “begins with Va’ pensiero.”

Verdi would go on to compose a number of works that define the idea of opera, with Richard Wagner, perhaps, being the only other of his contemporaries in the form to exert as towering an influence. It is interesting to note, as Lebrecht points out, that even as Nabucco — a tale of Jewish liberation — was enjoying its tremendous and world-changing success, Wagner was developing the ideas that would lead to the publication of his infamous Das Judentum in der Musik, a polemic against the Jewish composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, arguing for the purification of European music more generally of Jewish influence. By the time of its publication, however, Verdi was well-embarked upon what Lebrecht calls his annus mirabilis: an 18-month period in which he composed Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.

Those operas, of course, along with Aida, are the most synonymous with Verdi among the listening public. Nabucco, though it is the work of a more youthful Verdi, is not inferior to any of them in scope or power. So why does it enjoy a less massive reputation? Lebrecht has a possible answer: “If there is a flaw in Nabucco it is that it is not the most dramatizable of operas — it works equally well in a concert performance as it does on the opera stage. It has set pieces, a huge chorus, and lacks a lot of people running on and off, swooning and hurling daggers. It doesn’t have a lot of opportunity for overt character development — and that may be it why it has not been the most popular of Verdi operas. It did not appear at the Met until 120 years after its premiere.” It should be noted here that the Met ran a sumptuous and powerful production with Plácido Domingo in the title role earlier in 2017 to excellent reviews.

For the interested listener, happily, Lebrecht says that there is no single definitive performance of the opera. “It really is one of those works that have a life of their own and talk to you in a different way as you go through life.” That said, for him the 2007 production of the opera at the Arena di Verona, with Leo Nucci in the title role, is “indelible.” Given the fact that the poisonous ideals espoused by Wagner seem to be appearing more and more in American and European society these days, this opera commands our attention with special, renewed strength.