Nabucco is the first manifestation of Giuseppe Verdi’s genius. It was his third opera, and its immense success established him at 28 years of age as a powerful force in Italian theater and music. He was never, even posthumously, to lose that status. Even with rocky moments and the inevitable ups and downs of an artistic life, he was to become and remain Italy’s preeminent composer of the 19th century and arguably of its entire history. Though thoroughly Italian (sometimes obstinately so in the face of the foreign influences from the north of Europe), his music transcended its native land and its composer’s humble origins to install itself throughout the world.
Nabucco entered the operatic world as if shot out of a cannon. It belongs to that cadre of youthful works that suddenly mark the territory newly opened to the composer and to our world. It is Verdi’s Rite of Spring, his Flying Dutchman, and yet, unlike the iconoclastic young Stravinsky or the self-consciously revolutionary Wagner, he had no intention of nor ambition toward such a musical revolution. The Dutchman was a quantum leap forward from the past and the present. No so for Verdi, who considered working within the confines of the existing Italian tradition his calling. His full acceptance of the art form he was inheriting from Bellini, Donizetti and—most of all—Rossini, would guide his youthful works. The latter’s opera Moses in Egypt (and its later revision Moses and Pharaoh) can be considered a specific model and starting point for Nabucco. Verdi would inherit Rossini’s mantel as the master of the melodramma. Ironically, without the intention to modernize, he transformed Italian opera in the course of his long life, and brought it to heights that would have been unimaginable to his contemporaries, let alone his predecessors.
The propulsive, explosive and omnipresent rhythmic thrust apparent in Nabucco, was, in its way, tantamount to the unshackling of rhythmic convention by Stravinsky 70 years later.
Over the course of time, Nabucco gained a supplementary political and nationalistic dimension. Much has been made of the symbolic meaning of “Va, pensiero,” the chorus sung by the Hebrews in exile. Its significance even in our contemporary day and age is undiminished. Virtually every Italian school child and grandparent recognizes it, can sing it and knows it as an iconic product of Italian culture. It takes no leap of imagination to read into the plight of the Italian people (there was no Italian nation yet) under foreign subjugation. Much of this seems to have been reverse-engineered.
Great genius often intuits the feeling of a people, even when it is not an expressed intention. Verdi was a poet, the poet of the 19th-century Italian spirit. He was a hero of the Risorgimento, laboring to construct a unified nation out of several city-states under foreign domination. The nation would be based on common language and culture. The young composer, inspired by the great Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, saw a new moral imperative in music. He wished that it would move away from its erotic preoccupation and address more serious conflicts which would be useful to the nation. (Subsequently, a similar ethic would be articulated by Modest Mussorgsky.) Verdi was and is beloved because of his inborn, profound capacity to empathize with the people, and to translate their lives, sensibilities, passions, aspirations and disappointments into musical theater.
There is no doubt that there is a strong political application in this opera. But it would be a mistake to overlook the personal drama, which touches on several themes that Verdi would return to repeatedly throughout his career.
First, the plight of a tragic father, often expressed through a conflicted father/child relationship, may be Verdi’s most important recurring theme. The title role in Nabucco is the first of his many great baritone roles: richly complex characters, stretched vocally beyond the expectations of the time, who are often at the core of the conflict. Verdi’s baritone fathers and father figures regularly lose or lock horns with their children. At the time he accepted La Scala’s commission to write Nabucco, Verdi had just become a tragic father himself. The loss of his young wife and two infant children left a deep mark on him. (It is interesting to note that mothers are almost entirely absent from Verdi’s output. I have never encountered a satisfactory explanation for this significant omission.)
Secondly, Abigaille is the first in a series of strong Verdi women. Nabucco has two daughters: Fenena is the “good” (and legitimate) one, who precedes him in accepting the Hebrew God, and Abigaille is the “bad” one, the presumed heir to the throne but in fact the daughter of a slave. Abigaille’s accession to the throne darkens their relationship. She is as fierce, vindictive and malevolent as Lady Macbeth would be five years later, or Amneris 30 years later. But Verdi also almost always shows the human side of even the most malicious of his “villains,” conveying their predicaments and their suffering. Abigaille treats her father cruelly. I do not know if Verdi was yet familiar with King Lear at this early stage, but he subsequently expressed an intense interest in setting it to music. With a king and two daughters—one “good” and one “bad”—Nabucco is well on its way as a predecessor to Verdi’s never to be written operatic adaptation. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” says Shakespeare’s king. The fallen Babylonian king might have thought the same.
The conflict between love and duty is another theme that Verdi would revisit in Stiffelio, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo and Aïda. Radames and Aïda replicate the Ismaele and Fenena bond, an interracial pairing that faces a common enemy. This is a natural variation on the Romeo and Juliet theme that, broadly speaking, governs much of Italian opera during the 19th century. But Verdi exploits this with particular poignancy.
The young composer was comfortable accepting all the conventions he inherited from his predecessors, but he is equally comfortable dispensing with any of them, such as the centrality of a love story. In Nabucco there is a love triangle—Ismaele is loved by both of Nabucco’s daughters—but it is a subplot. Verdi even insisted on replacing a love duet for Ismaele and Fenena with a scene for the prophet Zaccaria, thus elevating his importance dramatically. Abigaille’s unrequited love for Ismaele is afforded less attention than her ruthless machinations to destroy her father’s power.
What is unique to Nabucco, however, is the primacy of the chorus. Mazzini asked “why should not the chorus be further developed in modern musical drama and emerge from [its] secondary and passive role…to become a solemn, proper representation of the popular element?” The opera’s true protagonist is the Hebrew people, embodied by the chorus. And the work is of biblical proportions, complete with the manifestation of Jehovah’s wrath as He strikes Nabucco with lightning. Though Verdi would write much important music for chorus, and some of those choral excerpts are truly magnificent, he would never again put the chorus center stage in such a manner.
Verdi demonstrated with Nabucco that he had the breadth and depth to simultaneously recount a personal, political and religious drama, incorporating a striking variety of colors and moods, while also engaging the supernatural. Although it is not the most sophisticated of his operas (measured by the standards he himself would set in the course of his long career), it is an inspired work, with all of the energy of youthful audacity. That naturalness is part of Verdi’s genius, as attested to by the historian-philosopher-author Isaiah Berlin, with whom I fully concur and to whom I give the concluding word:
“Noble, simple, with a degree of unbroken vitality and vast natural power of creation and organization, Verdi is the voice of the world which is no more. His enormous popularity among the most sophisticated as well as the most ordinary listeners today is due to the fact that he expressed permanent states of consciousness in the most direct terms, as Homer, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Tolstoy have done… After Verdi this is not heard in music again. Verdi’s assured place, in the high canon of the musical art, which nobody now disputes, is a symptom of sanity in our time.”
James Conlon has served as LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director since 2006. He has conducted 50 different operas by more than 20 different composers since his company debut.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.