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.

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 …

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