Giuseppe Verdi was born in Roncole in northern Italy in 1813. He composed 28 operas. While in his 20s Verdi experienced the death of his 1st wife and the deaths of his 2 infant children. This threw him into a terrible depression. And he refused to continue composing, until he read the libretto of Nabucco.
He was twenty-eight when he composed Nabucco. Its world premiere was at Milan’s La Scala opera house. In Verdi’s day, the country of Italy didn’t yet exist. The Italian peninsula was divided into 10 political units consisting of 2 kingdoms, 3 republics, 4 duchies and a theocracy known as the Vatican. Most of these were dominated by the Austrian Empire.
Nabucco broke all box office records at La Scala up until that time. And it was not long before Verdi became a symbol of the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy. The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda wrote:
“The cries for liberty it inspired in the Italian people spread from heart to heart like wildfire… Filled with pride, they all began singing Verdi’s melodies.
After Nabucco Verdi produced a succession of operas to inspire and encourage the people. He composed always and solely for the people. That is where his greatness lies.”
Nabucco takes place in 586 B.C. and is based on the biblical story of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nabucco, the king of Babylon, who ordered the Jews to be taken from Judea as prisoners, and led by chains to the foreign land of Babylon.
Act I is set in Jerusalem, at the temple of Solomon
Each of the 4 acts is preceded by a quote from the book of Jeremiah. Act I: “Thus saith the Lord: behold I shall deliver this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire.” Jeremiah 21:10
Its overture is one of the most exciting in all of opera.
The Babylonian army has defeated the Israelite army and is advancing towards the city of Jerusalem. At the temple of Solomon everyone is lamenting their defeat and praying to God to spare the temple.
The Hebrew prophet and high priest Zaccaria enters with Nabucco’s daughter, Fenena, as a hostage. Zaccaria sings: “Have faith in god…As our hostage she can secure peace for us.”
Ismaele enters with a group of Hebrew soldiers. He is the king of Jerusalem’s nephew. Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismael. Zaccaria sings: “Come down and fight with us, mighty God of Abraham. Fenena and Ismaele sing of their love for each other.
Abagaille is has been raised as Nabucco’s other daughter, but is actually the daughter of a slave. She enters with Babylonian soldiers disguised as Israelites. She announces the capture of the temple and threatens Ismaele and Fenena with death AND declares her love for Ismaele. She curses them vowing revenge. She sings: “My love is a raging fury. It can give you life or death. Ah, if you love me, I could still save your people! Ismaele. sings that he can not return her love. Fenena feels the power of the true God of Israel.
Hebrew men and women, Zaccaria’s sister, Anna, old men, and Levites all enter singing that Nabucco is approaching. Hebrew soldiers enter who also sing that Nabucco is coming. Nabucco enters with Babylonian soldiers.
Zaccaria stops him at the entrance to the temple singing: “How dare you! This is the house of God.” Zaccaria threatens to kill Nabucco’s daughter, Fenena if Nabucco attacks the temple. Nabucco replies: “Wicked Zion must flow in a sea of blood amid tears and groans. Zaccaria holds a knife to Fenena’s throat but Ismaele seizes the knife and Fenena runs to Nabucco, who sings: “Your God fears me, you fools. He didn’t even appear on the battle field.” He orders his soldiers to plunder and burn the temple. Abagaille sings: “This accursed people will be be wiped from the face of the earth. If my heart’s affection can not be satisfied, then at least my hate will be!” The Israelites curse Ismaele for being a traitor.
ACT II The Wicked Man
“Behold…! The whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth and will fall upon the head of the wicked man.” Jeremiah 30:23
Scene 1 takes place in Abagaille’s residence in Nabucco’s royal palace in Babylon
The Jews have been led captive into Babylon. Nabucco is away at war, and while he continues his battle against the Israelites, he has appointed Fenena as ruler and as guardian of the Israelite prisoners. Abagaille enters hastily and triumphant holding a parchment scroll and venting her bitterness and desire for revenge. Jealous of her sister and dying to know whether or not she is Nabucco’s daughter or as rumor has it only a slave, she finds a document that proves she is the daughter of slaves. She is bitter that Nabucco has refused to allow her to participate in the war against the Israelites.
The role of Abagaille requires a soprano that has a hefty sized voice, who has the agility to singing rapid notes, high Cs, and powerful low notes as well. The soprano who sang the world premiere of Nabucco, Giuseppina Strepponi later become Verdi’s 2nd wife. When Nabucco premiered she was already experiencing difficulties with her voice, and singing the role of Abagaille seems to have killed what remained of her singing voice. Verdi wrote music for the part of Abagaille that is incredibly aggressive and fiendishly strenuous on the voice. When she sings about her own anger, her music climbs to a high C and then abruptly drops down to a low C, something singers are never asked to do.
She rages in fury but then remembers her love for Ismaele.
The high priest of Baal, who is the Babylonian God enters with soothsayers informing Abagaille that Fen is setting the Jewish prisoners free. They urge her to seize the power of the throne and inform her that they have already spread the rumor that Nabucco has been killed in battle.
Abagaille sings: “I’m already ascending the bloodstained seat of that golden throne. I know very well how to unleash my revenge from that seat.” They sing: “Yes, Baal’s revenge will thunder forth with your vengeance.”
Scene 2 takes place at nighttime in a hall in Nabucco’s palace
Zaccaria enters the royal apartment with a Levite carrying the tablets of the Law. The Hebrews are gathered together. To the accompaniment of a cello sextet Zaccaria prays to God for guidance. He then goes with the Levite to summon Fenena.
Ismaele enters with the Levites, who accuse Ismaele of treachery. Zaccaria’s sister Anna enters with Zaccaria, Fenena and the Levite announcing that Ismaele has saved Fenena, who has converted to Judaism and urges them to forgive Ismaele.
One of Nabucco’s long time officers enters out of breath with the news of Nabucco’s death. He urges Fenena to flee and warns of the rebellion that Abagaille has started and conveys that the people now call for Abagaille as their queen.
The high priest of Baal, an enemy of the Hebrew God, enters with Abagaille, the soothsayers and their assistants. Abagaille orders Fenena to give her the crown. Fenena refuses. Nabucco enters, grabs the crown and places it on his own head! He defies Abagaille to take it from him. He orders everyone to bow their faces to the ground and worship him as their God. Fenena sings that she has converted to Judaism. Nabucco declares that he is no longer king and that he is God. Suddenly there is a crash of lightning and thunder over his head. Terrified, Nabucco feels the crown being lifted from his head by a supernatural force and he loses his mind. What follows is a wonderful 5 part canon where everyone sings about the approaching moments of a fatal rage with thunderbolts preparing to open their wings.
Nabucco then sings a magnificent mad scene. Zaccaria sings that heaven has punished the boaster. Abagaille picks up the crown and sings: “But may the splendor of Baal’s people not be extinguished.”
Act III The Prophecy
“The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell in Babylon and the owls and hoopoe birds shall dwell therein.” Jeremiah 50:39
Scene 1 takes place at he hanging gardens of Babylon
Abagaille is now the Queen of Babylon. The high priest of Baal hands her a document to sign. It is the death warrant for the execution of the Hebrews, including her sister, Fenena. Nabucco wanders in still insane. What follows is an incredible duet between father and daughter in which Abagaille commands Nabucco to sign the death warrant, which he does. He then suddenly remembers his daughter Fenena and angrily tells Abagaille that she is actually a slave, whereupon Abagaille shows Nabucco her birth certificate and tears it up before his eyes. Soldiers take Nabucco into custody and lead him away.
Scene 2 takes place on the banks of the Euphrates river
We then hear the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves where the Jews are in captivity in Babylon resting after a long day of forced labor. They lament their unhappy fate as prisoners, singing: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate… Go, thought, on golden wings… The thought is of their beloved homeland.
They sing: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!” They yearn for their homeland. To Verdi, the suffering of the biblical Jews was similar to the anguish of the Italians under foreign domination. It is the struggle of an oppressed people for freedom. Dr. Ikeda wrote:
“It was as if the Italian people’s own subjugation by another country was mirrored back to them. The opera provided ‘wings of hope’ upon which the hearts of those who aspired for Italy’s freedom could majestically soar.” Zaccaria prophesies God’s destruction of Babylon.
Act IV The broken Idol
“Baal is confounded; his statue is broken into pieces.” Jeremiah 50:2
Scene 1 takes place in an apartment in Nabucco’s palace
Nabucco wakes up from a nap and realizes that he is now a prisoner. His mind is still confused and raving. He prays to the Hebrew God for forgiveness and to spare Fenena. And he promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
Nabucco’s sanity instantly returns. Nabucco and his soldiers depart to rescue Fenena.
Scene 2 is at the hanging gardens: the place of execution
A funeral march is played as Fenena and the Israelites enter. They pray as they prepare for death. Nabucco and his soldiers enter. He raises his sword and the statue of Baal shatters into pieces. He tells the Jews that they are free and everyone sings praises to mighty Jehovah. This incredible scene is one of the most solemn and majestic compositions for vocal soloists and chorus only, with no instruments.
Abagaille enters after she has drunk poison and begs for forgiveness from Fenena, prays for God’s mercy, and dies. Zaccaria sings to Nabucco: “As Jehovah’s servant you shall be a king of kings.”