Giuseppe Verdi regarded Nabucco, his third work to reach the stage, as the catalyst that set the rest of his career in motion.
A Career-Saving Opera
After suffering tragic personal loss (the sudden deaths of his first wife and two infant children) plus a humiliating professional setback (the fiasco of his comic second opera, King for a Day), Verdi “needed this to happen now,” says Thaddeus Strassberger, director of LA Opera’s production. “If you look at documents from that period, there’s a sense of urgency, a youthful exuberance, and he’s adamant that the new opera cannot wait.” Nabucco’s opening on March 9, 1842, was a sensation, restoring the young composer’s faltering confidence.
How Verdi became interested in Nabucco.
In the story Verdi liked to retell later in life, the given subject of Nabucco initially held little appeal. He recalled tossing it aside and then noting that the libretto manuscript opened to the chorus “Va, pensiero” (the opera’s signature number). Verdi now found he couldn’t get the scenario out of his head and was compelled to set it to music. “There is something that happens for artists when a piece that seemed banal feels suddenly right,” remarks Strassberger.
Chorus as Character
Nabucco‘s great innovation revolves around the focal role of the chorus as a character in its own right. You can even trace Nabucco’s narrative arc merely by paying attention to what the chorus does in each of the opera’s four acts (or “parts,” as the libretto terms them, assigning subtitles and epigraphs from the Book of Jeremiah to each). In the highly suspenseful Part 1 (“Jerusalem”), the chorus not only sets the stage for the Israelites’ plight as they are overtaken by the marauding Babylonians but enacts the sense of engulfing terror against which the individual stories play out.
The chorus portrays the Babylonians in Part 2 (“The Unbeliever”), who share the Israelites’ shock at Nabucco’s blasphemy. Part 3 (“The Prophecy”) contains the score’s Big Moment, the “Va, pensiero” chorus of collective memory and longing for a lost homeland. But this is far more than a nostalgic choral postcard. The voice of the people dramatically anchors and interacts with their high priest Zaccaria as he prophecies their coming liberation (and calls for the Babylonians’ destruction). In the hymnal finale to Part 4 (“The Broken Idol”), the Israelites and Babylonians join together in a cathartic moment of a cappella reconciliation to praise the workings of divine power.
For all its trappings as a Biblical epic, Nabucco is a two-fold 19th-century fantasy.
The first fantasy involves the plot, which is a fiction projected onto historical events following the destruction in 587 B.C.E. of the Temple in Jerusalem. All of the principals save Nabucco are fictional creations dropped into this familiar setting.
The other level of fantasy has to do with the opera’s reception and its purported role in Verdi’s life and career. Here, too, a good deal of projection has come into play—projection of desires and ideals extraneous to the “source” (in this case, the opera written in 1841 and premiered in 1842 as an autonomous work of art). Part of the ingenuity of Strassberger’s vision is its dual focus on both layers of the fantasizing.
“I put myself in the framework of the 1840s, when most of what we think of as the historic ancient Babylon had not been discovered yet—so the artists in Milan were basing the ‘look’ on Near and Middle Eastern architecture that had been excavated during Napoleonic times, mixed with Greek and Egyptian ideas.”
Image via Biography
He additionally looks “through the lens of Verdi’s own time and struggles” by framing Nabucco as an opera-within-an-opera, presented as its 1842 premiere.
Modern scholars have debunked the myth that the audience instantly took “Va, pensiero” to heart as a coded political message of resistance and that the Northern Italians, occupied by Austrians as part of a foreign empire, allegorically identified with the enslaved Israelites from the very opening night. Of course, Verdi did provide huge inspiration to the Risorgimento, the revolutionary nationalist push for unification.
But the impulse to fantasy that gave birth to the myth of Nabucco—and that led to a romanticized backdating of its political significance—is what matters for Strassberger. “We have the benefit of looking back through the prism of history to see meanings that weren’t necessarily present in 1842 but that have had reverberations since.”
Such close examination of the sources, for Strassberger, must extend to the libretto and the precise ways in which Verdi sets the words. “If opera can be used as a political propaganda tool, it can obviously be misused as well. Zaccaria is great example of how this can take a negative turn. He is usually construed as the sympathetic leader of the besieged Hebrews, a Moses character—and that is looking at the situation through a mid-20th-century lens as well.”
“But if you look closely at Zaccaria’s text, he has a huge cabaletta in the first scene almost reminiscent of Isis in its aggression, singing ‘Death to every foreigner!’ That has a visceral impact on us today as well, in our own context. Then Verdi shows a softer side, as the people look for spiritual guidance.” This kind of detailed reading of nuances opens up a way to appreciate Verdi’s musical characterizations as far richer than the predictable stereotypes we often expect. “I work closely with the supertitles to make sure they are really expressing the texts and don’t smooth over the violence of Zaccaria’s rhetoric.”
Nabucco director Thaddeus Strassberger with a hand-painted piece of his 3D set
Along similar lines, the anti-heroine Abigaille—one of the most demanding soprano roles Verdi ever wrote—gains added depth through Strassberger’s framing device.
“Here, too, the text in these 19th-century operas is often overlooked in its details, and we just get a jilted lover. But there’s such complexity here—including the feeling of being torn between personal bonds and professional and political responsibilities.”
Strassberger says he tried to imagine how a woman in her situation might have reacted to “all of these external pressures. When she behaves vindictively and aggressively, it comes from a place of pain and suffering.” Moreover, by framing the opera within its 1842 context, “We see Abigaille not only as the character in the opera but as the artist portraying Abigaille during a time of political crisis.”
In short, Nabucco epitomizes more than Verdi’s early quest for an authentic artistic identity; its success encouraged “the development of an Italian identity at a time when Verdi and his contemporaries feared they would lose their language and way of living, even the food that was part of their culture, to this amassed Austrian power.”
Along with these two levels, explicitly present in his staging, Strassberger mentions, “You could say there is a third meta-level: Why are we doing this opera today? That’s not something I engage directly in the production per se, but I hope that this artistic expression will create a desire to question that. If Verdi produced this masterpiece that had a real political bent to it, what are we doing today that has an additional impact, that goes beyond entertainment? How does a live performance offer something that differs from just consuming a work of art?”
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Thomas May writes about the arts for a wide variety of publications. He blogs at memeteria.com.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.