Verdi’s Nabucco

Event: Verdi’s Nabucco
Date: January 7, 2017, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 2 hours 44 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Nabuccoper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Nabuccoper student • $11.00 online


Part I—Jerusalem

Jerusalem, 6th century B.C. The Israelites are praying for help against Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), King of Babylon, who has attacked them and is vandalizing the city. Zaccaria, their high priest, reassures his people that the Lord will not forsake them. As the Israelites leave, Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem, is left alone with Nabucco’s daughter Fenena, whom the Hebrews hold hostage. The two fell in love during Ismaele’s imprisonment in Babylon, and Fenena helped him escape and followed him to Jerusalem. They are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Fenena’s half-sister, Abigaille, and a band of disguised Babylonian soldiers. Abigaille, who is also in love with Ismaele, tells him that she can save his people if he will return her love, but he refuses. The Israelites rush back into the temple in a panic. When Nabucco enters with his warriors, Zaccaria confronts him, threatening to kill Fenena. Ismaele disarms the priest and delivers Fenena to her father. Nabucco orders the destruction of the temple.

Part II—The Impious One

Nabucco has appointed Fenena regent while he is away leading his campaign. Abigaille, back in the royal palace in Babylon, has found a document saying that she is not the king’s daughter but the child of slaves. Foreseeing a future in which Fenena and Ismaele will rule together over Babylon, she swears vengeance on Nabucco and Fenena. The High Priest of Baal arrives with news that Fenena has betrayed them and freed the Israelite prisoners. He offers the throne to Abigaille and proposes to spread the rumor that Nabucco has fallen in battle.

Zaccaria hopes to persuade the Babylonians to give up their false idols. The Levites accuse Ismaele of treachery, but Zaccaria announces that he has been pardoned for saving a fellow Israelite—the newly converted Fenena. An messenger warns Fenena that the king is dead and her life is in danger. Before she can escape, the High Priest of Baal arrives with Abigaille and the Babylonians, who proclaim Abigaille ruler. She is about to crown herself when, to the astonishment of all, Nabucco appears. He takes the crown from her and declares himself not only king but god. At this, a thunderbolt strikes him down. Abigaille, triumphant, retrieves the crown for herself.

Part III—The Prophecy

The Babylonians hail Abigaille as their ruler. The High Priest urges her to have the Israelites killed, but before she can give the order, Nabucco appears in a state of half-madness. Alone with him, Abigaille tricks him into signing the death warrant for the captive Israelites. Fenena, she says, must also die. When Nabucco starts to look for the document proving Abigaille’s ancestry, she produces it and tears it to pieces. He pleads in vain for Fenena’s life.

On the banks of the Euphrates, the Israelites remember their lost homeland. Zaccaria tells them they will overcome captivity and obliterate Babylon with the help of God.

Part IV—The Broken Idol

Nabucco, locked up in his apartments by Abigaille, watches Fenena and the Israelites being led to execution. He prays to the god of Israel for forgiveness, pledging to convert himself and his people. His sanity restored, he forces open the door and summons his soldiers to regain the throne and save his daughter.

The Israelites are about to be executed. Fenena prays to be received into heaven when Nabucco rushes in and stops the sacrifice. Abigaille, full of remorse, takes poison and dies, confessing her crimes and praying to the god of Israel to pardon her. Nabucco announces his conversion and frees the Israelites, telling them to return to their native land and rebuild their temple. Israelites and Babylonians are united in praising God.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

“This is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star.” The difficulties Verdi refers to were a provincial childhood; the deaths of his two infant daughters, followed by that of his 26-year-old wife; and the failure of his second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”). These tragedies plunged him into despair, and he vowed to quit composing. Then, according to his reminiscences, the impresario of La Scala, Merelli, encountered him by chance on the street and handed him the libretto to Nabucco. At home Verdi tossed it aside until one sleepless night he opened it (again by chance) to the chorus “Va, pensiero,” which fired his imagination.

The 1842 premiere at La Scala was a roaring success, not least because of that chorus, still the opera’s most famous number. In it the captive Israelites nostalgically recall their lost homeland. The text, adapted from Psalm 137 (“By the Waters of Babylon”), was perceived as a metaphor for the condition of Italy under foreign domination. This was the era of the Risorgimento, the ultimately successful movement for Italian unification and independence, and “Va, pensiero” became its unofficial anthem. Six decades later, it was the music performed at Verdi’s funeral, conducted by Toscanini.

The libretto by Temistocle Solera adheres closely to the history related in the Biblical books of 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Daniel, but only the title character is historical. The melodramatic intrigues and rudimentary love plot are inventions. Solera’s libretto has been much criticized for improbability and clumsy construction, but it is surely no worse than most others of that period. Verdi’s impassioned music salvages it. Aside from “Va, pensiero” and other choral episodes, the most notable music belongs to Abigaille, the villain. This demanding role calls for a voice both powerful and agile, and a dramatic presence to match. The remaining important voices are mostly low ones, baritones and basses. As in Macbeth, Verdi’s masterpiece from five years (and seven operas) later, the leading tenor fades into the background.

Nabucco is “early Verdi,” with all the flaws and virtues the term implies. Without it we would not have had middle and late Verdi. Enjoy the primo and secondo, but don’t skip the antipasto.