4 maj 2009
94 Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
Nabucco (short for Nabucodonosor, English Nebuchadnezzar) 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. It is Verdi’s third opera and the one which is considered to have permanently established his reputation as a composer. The soprano role of Abigaille is unique in that it has been the downfall of a number of singers. Elena Souliotis and Anita Cerquetti sang it before they were ready, and its high tessitura ruined their voices. Maria Callas sang it only three times and only a live performance from 1949 was recorded. Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland refused to sing it. While no soprano has become known as a ”great Abigaille”, Ghena Dimitrova (1941 – 2005) was a notable exponent of the role.
Time: 587 BC
Place: Jerusalem and Babylon
Act 1: 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: D’Egitto là su i lidi / ”On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses”. The presence of a hostage, Fenena, younger daughter of Nabucco, may yet secure peace (Aria: Come notte a sol fulgente / ”Like darkness before the sun, like dust before the wind”). Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon. Although Fenena and Ismaele love each other, when they are 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, Abigaille will accuse her of treason. The King himself enters (Viva Nabucco / ”Long live 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.
Act 2: 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 (Aria: Anch’io dischiuso un giorno / ”I too once opened my heart to happiness”). 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, and they leave Abigaille to sing the cabaletta: Salgo già del trono aurato / ”I am ready to ascend the bloodstained seat of the golden throne”).
Scene 2: A hall in the Palace in Babylon
Accompanied by a cello sextet, Zacharia awaits Fenena (Vieni, o Levita / ”Bring the tables of the law”). She converts 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 / ”I am no King! I am God!”), Nabucco is promptly hit by a thunderbolt and loses his senses. The crown falls and is picked up by Abigaille.
Act 3: The Prophecy
‘Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein’. (Jeremiah 50:39)
Scene 1: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The High Priest of Baal 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. (Duet: Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto / ”Oh what affront I must suffer in my old age”). Abigaille exults.
Scene 2: Banks of the River Euphrates
The Jews long for their homeland: Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate / ”Fly thought on golden wings; Fly and settle on the slopes and hills”). Zaccaria once again exhorts them to have faith: God will destroy Babylon.
Act 4: The Shattered Idol
‘Bel is confounded, Merodach is broken in pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.’ (Jeremiah 50:2)
Scene 1: The Palace in Babylon
Nabucco awakens, his strength and his reason fully regained. He sees Fenena in chains being taken to her death. Asking forgiveness of the God of the Jews, he promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and follow the true faith (Dio di Giuda / ”God of Judah! The altar, your sacred Temple, shall rise again”). Joined by loyal soldiers, he resolves to punish the traitors and rescue Fenena.
Scene 2: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
As Zaccaria leads Fenena and the Jews towards death (Va! La palma del martino……dischius’è il firmamento / ”Go, maid, go and conquer the palm of martyrdom”….”Oh, heaven has opened up! My soul yearns for the Lord”) on the sacrificial altar of Baal, Nabucco rushes in, sword in hand. At his word the Idol of Baal shatters into pieces. Nabucco tells the Jews they are free and a new Temple will be raised to their God. Abigaille enters. She has poisoned herself. She expresses her remorse, asks the forgiveness of Fenena and dies. Zaccaria acclaims Nabucco as the servant of God and the King of Kings.
Nabucco, King of Babylon – baritone
Abigaille, supposedly his elder daughter – soprano
Fenena, his daughter – mezzo-soprano
Ismaele, son of the King of Jerusalem – tenor
Zaccaria, high priest of the Jews – bass
Anna, Zaccaria’s sister – soprano
Abdallo, Babylonian soldier – tenor
High priest of Baal – bass
Now this is my favourite Verdi opera, so I’m really disappointed to see it this low on the list. 😦 I think both the music and the story is great, and very touching. I’ve seen it live three times, even if two of the times were the same production, and it’s one of these operas where I really feel emotional when I see it. Since it is my favourite it was a bit hard to just find a couple of youtube-clips to represent it, but here we go.
As noted the role of Abigaille is one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire and of the few who’s been famous for her Abigaille is Ghena Dimitrova. Here she is singing Salgo gia del trono aurato, basically proclaiming that the throne of Babylon is now hers. I have a recording of Birgit Nilsson singing this, and she made a lovely Abigaille too. Then comes from the second act S’appresan gli’istanti. I think this is a very typical Italian opera piece. Four people stand, without moving, singing about revenge and other dreadful things, but to be honest I think the end of each solo is more silly than serious. Still I like it anyway. Then comes my favourite piece of the whole opera Nabucco’s grande aria Dio di Giuda, sung by the great Verdi baritone Renato Bruson. To see a great baritone singing this alone on stage, and binding the whole audience, is one of the best experiences I’ve had at a opera. Then finally I can’t talk Nabucco without the chorus Va, pensiero, here in a performance from the Met. I definitely think this should have become the national anthem of Italy, instead of the dreadful march that they have now.