Nabucco (short for Nabucodonosor, English Nebuchadnezzar) is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Temistocle Solera, based on the biblical story and the play by Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu. It is Verdi’s third opera and the one which is considered to have permanently established his reputation as a composer.
Its first performance took place on 9 March 1842 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan under the original name. The definitive name for the opera and the protagonist were attributed at a performance at the San Giacomo Theatre of Corfu, in September, 1844.
The best-known number from this opera is the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate / "Fly, thought, on golden wings".
Amusingly, one critic who found Nabucco revolting was Otto Nicolai, the composer to whom the libretto was first offered. A thoroughly Prussian-bred man, 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 flee 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 ... ". Additionally, he described Nabucco as nothing but "rage, invective, bloodshed and murder."
Nicolai's opinions were in the minority, however, and he has today 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.
The soprano role of Abigaille is unique in that it has been the downfall of a number of singers. Elena Souliotis and Anita Cerquetti sang it before they were ready, and its high tessitura ruined their voices. Maria Callas sang it only three times, and never recorded it. Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland refused to sing it. While no soprano has become known as a "great Abigaille", Ghena Dimitrova is a notable current exponent of the role.
While not often performed, Nabucco is found on the Met's roster. Other companies have given it, including San Francisco Opera (1982), and in 1995 it appeared as part of the Sarasota Opera's "Verdi Cycle".
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,|
March 9, 1842
(Conductor: - )
|Nabucco, King of Babylon||baritone||Giorgio Ronconi|
|Abigaille, supposedly his elder daughter||soprano||Giuseppina Strepponi|
|Fenena, his daughter||mezzo-soprano||Giovannina Bellinzaghi|
|Ismaele, son of the King of Jerusalem||tenor||Corrado Miraglia|
|Zaccaria, high priest of the Jews||bass||Prosper Dérivis|
|Anna, Zaccaria's sister||soprano||Teresa Ruggeri|
|Abdallo, Babylonian soldier||tenor||Napoleone Marcone|
|High priest of Baal||bass||Gaetano Rossi|
Interior of the Temple of Jerusalem
The Jews are being defeated and Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) is poised to enter Jerusalem. The High Priest Zaccaria tells the people not to despair but to trust in God (D'Egitto là su i lidi). The presence of a hostage, Fenena, younger daughter of Nabucco, may yet secure peace (Come notte a sol fulgente). Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon. Although Fenena and Ismaele love each other, when they are left alone, Ismaele urges her to escape rather than risk her life. Nabucco's elder daughter, Abigaille, storms into the temple with 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. The King himself enters (Viva Nabucco). Zaccaria defies him, threatening to kill Fenena with a dagger. Ismaele intervenes to save her. Nabucco responds by ordering the destruction of the temple, and the Jews curse Ismaele as a traitor.
Scene 1: The Palace in Babylon
Nabucco is away at the wars and has appointed Fenena as regent. Abigaille has discovered a document that proves she is not Nabucco's real daughter, but a slave (Anch'io dischiuso un giorno). The High Priest of Baal, accompanied by the Magi, comes to tell Abigaille that Fenena has released the Jewish captives. Their response is to launch a coup to put Abigaille on the throne, while spreading a rumour that Nabucco has died in battle, and they leave Abigaille to sing the cabaletta (Salgo già del trono aurato).
Scene 2: A hall in the Palace in Babylon
Accompanied by a cello sextet, Zacharia awaits Fenena (Tu sul labbro). She converts to the Jewish religion, and Ismaele is reconciled to the Jews. However, it is announced that the King is dead and Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal demand the crown from Fenena. Unexpectedly, Nabucco himself enters, scorning both sides, both Baal and the Hebrew god that he has defeated. He declares himself God. When Zaccaria objects, Nabucco orders the Jews to be put to death. Fenena says that she will share their fate. Repeating that he is now god (Non son piu re, son dio), Nabucco is promptly hit by a thunderbolt and loses his senses. The crown falls and is picked up by Abigaille.
Scene 1: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The High Priest of Baal presents Abigaille with the death decree for the Jews and Fenena. Nabucco enters looking like a mad man, claiming his throne. Abigaille persuades him to seal the decree, but he asks that Fenena be saved. He tells Abigaille that she is not his true daughter but a slave. Abigaille mocks him, destroying the document with the evidence of her true origins. Understanding that he is now a prisoner, he pleads for Fenena's life. Abigaille exults.
Scene 2: Banks of the River Euphrates
The Jews long for their homeland (Va pensiero, sull'ali dorate). Zaccaria once again exhorts them to have faith: God will destroy Babylon.
Scene 1: The Palace in Babylon Nabucco awakens, his strength and his reason fully regained. He sees Fenena in chains being taken to her death. Asking forgiveness of the God of the Jews, he promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and follow the true faith (Dio di Giuda). Joined by loyal soldiers, he resolves to punish the traitors and rescue Fenena (O prodi miei, seguitemi).
Scene 2: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon As the Jews and Fenena (O dischius'è il firmamento) prepare for death on the sacrificial altar of Baal, Nabucco rushes in, sword in hand. At his word the Idol of Baal shatters into pieces. Nabucco tells the Jews they are free. A new Temple will be raised to their God. Abigaille enters. She has poisoned herself. She expresses her remorse, asks the forgiveness of Fenena and dies. Zaccaria acclaims Nabucco as the servant of God and the King of Kings.
This synopsis by Simon Holledge was first published on Opera japonica http://www.operajaponica.org and appears here by permission.
The average performance time is 2 hours, 15 minutes plus one intermission.