Nabucco 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. Its first performance took place on March 9, 1842 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. The best-known number from this opera is Hebrews' Chorus, "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate" ("Fly, thought, on golden wings").
The opera, Verdi’s third, is considered to be the one that permanently established his reputation as a composer. Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (in English, Nebuchadnezzar).
Following the critical and public failure of his second opera Un giorno di regno, Giuseppe Verdi considered giving up opera. As a teacher, he fared no better; he left his post earlier in disgust as director of the Music School of Busseto after the Music Conservatoire of Milan rejected him. At the same time, other Italian contemporaries like Rossini and Donizetti were passing him by and becoming internationally famous. Realizing that the proceeds from the first and subsequent productions of his first opera Oberto would not last him forever, Verdi was unsure how to continue making a living in Milan.
Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of the Teatro alla Scala, approached Verdi with a new manuscript titled Nabucodonosor (later Nabucco) by Temistocle Solera (the librettist of his first opera), which was based on a play of the same name written by Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu. Merelli had already approached the Prussian composer Otto Nicolai about composing the music but was turned down in favor of working on the opera Il proscritto (a move Nicolai later regretted). Verdi rejected Merelli as well but kept the manuscript with him. Verdi describes his decision to accept as a swift and dramatic one, in that he "threw the manuscript onto the table almost violently" and "read the libretto not once but two or three times so that by morning …[he] knew the whole of [the] libretto [...] by heart". This is likely exaggerated; the decision was a more cautious one, made over the course of days or weeks. Nabucco was finished by the autumn of 1841 at the latest. Unlike Oberto, which took three years for a theatre to agree to a performance, Nabucco’s production started March 1842, six months after completion. The opera premiered on March 9, 1842 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Because a ballet based on the same play had been produced at that same theatre some months before, Verdi's opera reused many of the props and sets from then. Giorgio Ronconi (baritone) played Nabucco, Corrado Miraglia (tenor) played the king of Jerusalem Ismaele, Giuseppina Strepponi (soprano) Nabucco's adopted elder daughter Abigaille, and Giovannina Bellinzaghi (soprano) Nabucco's younger daughter Fenena.
Verdi commented that, "[w]ith this opera, my artistic career may be said to have begun". He was right: Nabucco was an instant success, dominating Donizetti and Pacini operas playing nearby. While the public went mad with enthusiasm, the critics tempered their approval of the opera.
Amusingly, one critic who found Nabucco revolting was Otto Nicolai, the composer to whom the libretto was offered first. 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 Nabucco's success 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 theatre, sixteen operas 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 slave's 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. Today, "Va, pensiero" is regularly given an encore when performed; interestingly, it is the only encore Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine has ever allowed.
All events occur during 587 BC.
Part One: Jerusalem
'Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I shall deliver this city into the hand of the King of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire' (Jeremiah 21:10)
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. The presence of a hostage, Fenena, younger daughter of Nabucco, may yet secure peace. Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon. Although Fenena and Ismaele love each other and 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, Abigail 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.
Part Two: The Unbeliever
'Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked' (Jeremiah 30:23)
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. 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.
Scene 2: A hall in the Palace in Babylon
Fenena is converted 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.
Part Three: The Prophecy
'The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell in Babylon, and the owls shall dwell therein'. Jeremiah
Scene 1: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The High Priest 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.
Part Four: The Shattered Idol
'Baal is confounded, his idols are broken in pieces.' Jeremiah
Scene 1: The Palace in Babylon
Scene 2: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
[This synopsis by Simon Holledge was first published on Opera japonica http://www.operajaponica.org and appears here by permission.]
It is scored for two flutes (one doubling as piccolo), two oboes (one doubling as English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones (two tenor, one bass), one cimbasso, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, side drum, triangle, two harps, strings, and an onstage band.
Average performance time is 2 hours, 15 minutes plus one intermission.