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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Verdi Project: Nabucco

By the waters of Babylon, Verdi's legend begins.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Historic bas-relief of the Babylonian king Nebachudnezzar, hero of Verdi's third opera Nabucco.
Nabucco put Giuseppe Verdi on the map. The composer's third opera premiered in Milan in 1842. It was an absolute smash. Its success would not only alter Verdi's fortunes, but the popularity of its message and its famous chorus "Va, pensiero" may claim some credit for reshaping the political map of Italy. It was Verdi's music and the eventual rallying cry "Viva Verdi" (code for "Vittorio Emmanuel, Re d'Italia") that would help propel that collection of nation-states toward revolution and eventual political unity.

18 months before Nabucco, Verdi's life was a mess. His two children had died in their infancy. In June of 1840, his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. Professionally, things were not much better. Although he had scored a success with Oberto, Comte di Bonifacio, Verdi's second opera, Un Giorno di Regno bombed at the Milanese theater. According to various accounts (some by the composer himself, which may or may not be true) he had sworn not to write another note. (In point of fact, Verdi would not write another comedy until 1893.) Things were bleak.

In the 19th century Italian theaters demanded novelty. There were no "classic" operas like today. The opera was popular entertainment and each opera house arranged for new works to be performed each season. To fulfill his La Scala contract, Verdi had to write a third opera. At a meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, the manager of La Scala, Verdi was given Nabucodonosor by  Temostecle Solera, the librettist of Oberto. The composer, still despairing, rejected the libretto but the persistent Merelli urged Verdi to reconsider.

Solera's libretto filtered the events of the Old Testament through an 1836 French play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue. Nabucodonosor retold the story of the Babylonian king Nebachudnezzar II, his sack of Jerusalem in 589 B.C. and the beginning of the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, where the Jews were forced to live in what is now known to history as the Chaldean Empire (present-day Iraq.) The opera also relates the king's later madness, conversion to Judaism, and death. In Nabucco, Verdi created a conflicted father figure, an archetype that would serve him well in many of the operas to come.

To that, the French playwrights had added a memorable villain: the King's mad and bloodthirsty daughter Abagaille, who wants nothing more her father's throne, the self-proclaimed godhood that goes with it, and a pogrom of the Jews. This part, which is one of the most technically challenging Verdi roles, was premiered by one Giuseppina Strepponi, who would (eventually) become Verdi's companion and (in 1859) his second wife. There is also a tacked-on romantic subplot, a love story between Fenena (the "good" daughter) and young Ismael, the obligatory, if minor tenor role.

At that meeting with Merelli, what really resonated with Verdi was not the drama of "Nabucco" (as the work would soon be known) but the plight of the Israelites. The first thing in the libretto that Verdi saw was the proposed chorus for the Hebrews, their city in ashes  trapped in Babylon, and awaiting near-certain death at the hands of Abagaille. That chorus was Solera's idea. It is heard in the latter part of Act III. It begins: "Va, pensiero" ("Fly, thoughts, on wings of gold.")  It would change the world.

"Va, pensiero" was the hit of the show, and remains one of Verdi's most (over)-played and most popular tunes. This simple, uplifting chorus resonated with the people of Italy, who saw a parallel between their country (then split into many states and occupied by French and Austrian forces) and the destroyed Kingdom of Israel. Verdi would be sure to include a similar uplifting and inspirational chorus in many of his operas that he wrote in the next decade, a period referred to by the suddenly in-demand composer as his "galley years."

Recording recommendations:
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Lamberto Gardelli (Decca, 1965)
This is one of Tito Gobbi's few studio recordings of a Verdi opera, made under ideal conditions with the Decca team. It is also one of the few recordings to feature a star that never quite took off: soprano Elena Souliotis. Lamberto Gardelli would go on to record most of the early Verdi operas.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Riccardo Muti (EMI-WBC 1978)
The main attraction here is Riccardo Muti, who was just starting to build his reputation as a Verdi expert. This is a driven, detail oriented performance with a fine baritone (Matteo Managuerra) in the title role and Renata Scotto in burn-the-village mode in support.

Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1982)
This was another early Sinopoli recording with a good cast slightly past its sell-by date. Piero Cappucilli is a sensitive, finely tuned presence as Nabucco. Less subtle are hypersoprano Ghena Dimitrova as Abagaille and Plácido Domingo, slumming in the small part of Ismaele.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.