The online opera guide and synopsis on NABUCCO
Nabucco was Verdi’s first work for Olympus. After the bitter years of 1838-40, overshadowed by crises, it was Verdi’s return to the light. Verdi displayed a gigantic wealth of ideas in “Nabucco” and the work became a sensational success. He later called the seventeen-year creative frenzy that set in “his galley years”.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Act IV
♪ Io t’amava (Terzetto)
♪ Va pensiero (Choir of the hebrews)
Roles and Synopsis
Temistocle Solera, based on biblical psalms, and Nabuchodonosor by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu
The main roles
Nabucco, king of Babylon (baritone) - Abigaille, supposed daughter of Nabucco (mezzo-soprano) - Zaccaria, high priest of the Hebrews (bass) - Fenena, daughter of Nabucco (soprano) - Ismael, warrior of the Hebrews (tenor).
DG, Ghena Dimitrova, Evgeny Nesterenko, Piero Cappuccilli, Plácido Domingo, Lucia Valentini Terrani conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Verdi’s crisis and opportunity
The existence of the opera Nabucco would be unthinkable without the then director of La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli. After the failure of Verdis second opera, he gave Verdi his trust and provided him with the libretto to “Nabucco”. On the one hand he believed in the young, 26-year-old Italian, and on the other hand he was looking for new composers, since Bellini had died a few years ago, Rossini had stopped writing operas and Donizetti had left for Paris. Verdi was in a deep personal crisis at this time. Within a short time his family had died. His wife Margherita died at the age of only 26 and the two children were taken away by an epidemic. On top of this came the failure of his second opera. Verdi considered giving up writing music. Verdi himself later described what followed: Merelli had stuffed the libretto into his coat pocket, and when he arrived in his room, he threw it on the table. The notebook fell on the floor and it opened just at the place of the “Va, pensiero sull’ali dorate”. Verdi’s eyes fell on this verses and he was electrified. That very night he read the libretto. (Many a historian does not believe Verdi’s story, but nevertheless it is printed here according to the motto: “Se non è vero, è ben trovato”).
Temistocle Solera was commissioned by Merelli to write a libretto of Nebuchadnezzar. Solera took various biblical psalms as well as the historical figure of Nebuchadnezzar (605-662 B.C.) as a basis and added a series of further events. Solera’s imagination led to a confusing number of individual scenes, marches, lamentations, madness scenes, prayers, etc. and the listener does not find it easy to follow the plot. The libretto captivates more through colorful tableaux than through drama, because the latter is rather static and rigidly follows the classical scheme of “Scena ed aria”. A peculiarity of the story is that the love story takes a back seat; tenor and soprano have little presence and not even a love duet. The first recipient of the libretto was Otto Nicolai, but he refused it because of the rawness and brutality of the plot. Verdi accepted the libretto, but as usual had many requests for changes.
The new Verdi – the “Tinta musicale” of “Nabucco”
Despite its formal conservatism, Nabucco was a significant musical innovation. Never before had one experienced the almost brutal and elemental power of music as in Nabucco, which sounds “like a sansculotte invading a living room” (Gori, Guida al Teatro d’opera). This is manifested in the role of Abigaille, the role of the baritone, the orchestra and the choir. These four elements form the most important part of the “Tinta musicale” of “Nabucco”.
«Tinta musicale»: the noise
The orchestra already attracts attention at the beginning with its volume and the metallic, hard sound. Verdi wrote a noisy music for Nabucco. He loved the sharp accents, which he presents to the listener in this work unrestrained and in a dramatic way.
«Tinta musicale»: the role of Abigaille
Abigaille’s music captivates with its obsession, which Verdi documents with wild leaps in tone. Verdi is a Romantic composer and does not stand above his art with classicistic reserve like Rossini, but is a participant; an affected person of the stories he sets to music.
«Tinta musicale»: the role of the choir
The choral and mass scenes do not miss their effect on the listener. Contemporary listeners were used to the fact that the choir played a subordinate, accompanying role in the belcantist opera. And now Verdi composes an opera in which the choir has the presence of a leading actor, becomes an important carrier of the dramatic plot and with “Va pensiero” even sings the most famous passage of the whole opera, indeed of the whole history of opera. Much has been written about Verdi’s political and intellectual role in the Italian desire for freedom in the nineteenth century, and how this piece later made him the inspiring composer of the Risorgimento (the Italian freedom movement). Verdi later emphasized that already at the premiere of Nabucco, listeners associated this hymn of the Hebrews with their resistance against the Austrian authorities. The latter statement, however, is historically controversial. Verdi cultivated this myth in detail in his later years.
«Tinta musicale»: The “Verdi Bariton”
Another characteristic element of Nabucco is the absence of a tenor protagonist, whose role is filled by Nabucco, a baritone. The “Verdi Baritone” appears for the first time, a role that must develop great dramatic power and is characterized by high vocal flexibility for passages in higher registers. Nabucco does not have to play a tenor in love, but a father without a wife, army commander, opponent of Zaccaria and he has to fight against himself. Verdi will compose later often for this type of baritone.
Verdi and the church
Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews, plays an important role in Nabucco. Reason enough to make religion a theme in Verdi’s life and operas: “Giuseppe Verdi and religion – that is a difficult chapter. The great opera composer had little love for the church. ‘Stay away from priests’, he once advised his cousin. For his funeral he forbade the presence of clergymen. His longtime companion and later wife Giuseppina Strepponi described his attitude with the words: “I would not exactly say atheist, but certainly not a convinced believer. Nevertheless, Verdi practiced what Christians call charity. The composer also more than earned his merits as a benefactor. He supported needy workers and farmers, he financed education for children from poor families. He donated the “Casa di Riposo”, an old people’s home for singers and musicians in Milan that still exists today; the house also holds his grave. Verdi also ran a hospital, which was set up at his expense – to which priests were only allowed access for good reasons”. (Michael Krassnitzer, orf.at).
Scala director Merelli did not have many funds available for the premiere of the work, and the set design had to be painstakingly assembled from other productions. Nevertheless, Nabucco was a great success at its very first performance, which was balm for Verdi’s soul. The role of Abigaille was sung by his soon-to-be partner and later wife Giuseppina Strepponi. Nabucco launched Verdi’s career and became the first opera of Verdi to be performed abroad, and it has remained in the repertoire of opera theaters all over the world ever since.
NABUCCO ACT I
Ouverture – Muti
The overture is a potpourri piece in which Verdi presents us three themes from the opera. He seems ti have composed it only at the last moment, on the advice of his mentor and father-in-law Barezzi.
The Hebrews fear the invasion of the Babylonians
Synopsis: The Hebrews pray to their God to protect them from the troops of Nabucco, who stand at the gates of the capital.
Nabucco was written at a time when opera-goers had the works of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini in their ears. Many of the “Rossinian” conventions were daily practice in the opera house. For example, the form “Scena ed aria”, which describes a very schematic scene of individual persons. The sequence of the “Scena ed aria” is: recitative (tempo d’attacco), slow aria (cavatina), recitative (tempo di mezzo), fast aria (cabaletta) and possibly a stretta at the end. The Scena was accompanied by various performances of cues.
The first scene “Gli arredi festivi” follows the pattern. The overall chorus begins, then changes to the male chorus and then to a charming part of the female chorus accompanied by harp. At the end we hear the whole choir again brilliantly.
Gli arredi festivi – Muti
Synopsis: Zaccaria exhorts the people to believe in divine help, because they have Fenena as hostage, the daughter of the enemy king Nabucco.
Verdi had the great French bass Prosper Dérivis at his disposal for the premiere. This fact motivated him to write a part for the Zaccaria that went beyond the usual requirements of the time.
The performance of Zaccaria also follows the same pattern. Listen to the (slow) cavatina “Sperate o figli da egitto la sui lidi” with Boris Christoff.
Sperate o figli da egitto la sui lidi – Christoff
Synopsis: Ismael appears and reports on the breakthrough of Nabucco. Zaccaria demands the Hebrew people to defend their homeland. The people of the Hebrews join in enthusiastically.
And now the (fast) cabaletta “Come notte al sol fugente”, written in the dialogue between Zaccaria and the choir.
Come notte al sol fugente – Nesterenko/Abbado
Ishmael betrays his fatherland
Synopsis: Ismael and Fenena, who secretly love each other, stay behind. Tenderly, Ismael remembers when Fenena freed him in Babylon from the dungeon into which he had been thrown as a Hebrew messenger. Now the captured Fenena is entrusted to the care of Ismael. Some Babylonian soldiers enter the temple under the leadership of Abigaille. She sneers at Ishmael, whom she knows from Babylon, but then confesses her love in “Io t’amava”. But Ismael rejects Abigaille, resists the priest and leader Zaccaria and helps Fenena, the precious pledge of the Jews, to escape.
In the following trio of Ismael, Abigaille and Fenena, Verdi shows himself to be a refined psychologist even at a young age: with the short recitative he presents Abigaille as a potentate with power. At the beginning of the following trio, she documents her claim to power on Ismael with great leaps in tone and a catchy theme. Intimidated, Ismael takes up her theme. When Fenena begins with a beautiful, enticing theme, it is all about Ismael and he swings into Fenena’s melody. Abigaille is not ready for this and she sings her melody contrapuntally to the unison duet of Ismael and Fenena.
An interpretation with Elena Suliotis as Abigaille.
Prode guerrier…Io t’amava – Suliotis/Raimondi/Guelfi
Listen to another great version of “Io t’amava” with Placido Domingo, Ghena Dimitrova and Lucia Valenti.
Io t’amava (Terzetto) – Domingo/Dimitrova/Valenti
Synopsis: Now Nabucco arrives with his troops in front of the temple.
Viva Nabucco – Muti
Synopsis: Zaccaria opposes him and threatens to kill Fenena if he dares to enter the temple.
At this point there is a classical, big concertato. At first lashed by Nabucco, and then, not falling short of her father, by Abigaille.
Si finga … Tremin gl’insani del mio furore – Sinopoli
The great quintet of the end of act
Synopsis: Zaccarias threatens Fenena with the knife, but Ismail saves her. Nabucco, now seeing Fenena in safe hands, orders the troops to plunder the temple and orders the punishment of the Hebrews.
Verdi ends the act with a dramatic and stirring stretta by the quintet of Fenena, Zaccaria, Nabucco, Abigaille and Ishmael.
Mi furor no fui costretto – Muti
NABUCCO ACT II
Abigaille – a highly dramatic role
Synopsis: In the palace of Babylon. Abigaille learns her true origin as a slave from a secret paper. Since Nabucco continues the war against the Hebrews, Fenena was appointed as ruler in Babylon.
Announced as a ruler with three beats in the orchestra, Abigaille appears. Again, powerful leaps in tone (e.g. a double octave leap at the end of the recitative) document the character and emotional state of Abigaille. The following cantabile surprisingly shows an almost tender Abigaille, and Verdi gives her the yearning melody “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno”.
Ben io t’invenni…Anch’io dischiuso … salgo già – Callas/Gui
Synopsis: Abigaille is jealous of her sister and wants to take revenge on Fenena. When the Babylonian high priest reports that Fenena has released the Jewish prisoners, he demands that Abigaille should take over power and ascend the throne herself. To this end, he has already announced the false report that Nabucco died in the battle. Abigaille triumphs.
In this cabaletta “Salgo già”, Abigaille shows her true character with a frenetic performance, musically best documented by the crazy fall over two octaves of the “Supplicar” before the chorus enters.
Listen to this passage in the version of an unleashed Maria Callas in a recording from 1949.
Salgo già – Callas
A second interpretation sung by Elena Suliotis.
Salgo già – Suliotis
Zaccaria a great role for a bass
Synopsis: In this aria, Zaccaria prays that God may enlighten him to convert Fenena to the Jewish faith.
Zaccaria is very present throughout the opera and he is the first and last figure we hear. Verdi entrusts him with some very beautiful melodies, most notably the following “Tu sul labbro del veggenti”, which is wonderfully intimately accompanied by six cellos.
Tu sul labbro – Siepi
Other great choral scenes of Verdi
Synopsis: Ismael joins them, but the Hebrews insult him as a traitor and demand a severe punishment for him.
The Hebrews’ accusation of Ismael shows an impressive musical and theatrical expressivity.
Il maledetto non ha fratelli – Muti
Synopsis: Abigaille and her followers entered the hall to snatch the crown from Fenena. Nabucco, who was believed dead, has returned demands the crown for himself.
In the usual manner, this “Colpa di scena” turns into a concertato. As usual, Verdi’s concertatos are immensely effective, with a powerful choir accompanying the soloists.
S’appressan gl’instanti – Muti
Synopsis: Nabucco wants total power and presumes to be the god of the people. A lightning bolt flares up over his head and tears the crown from his head. Abigaille takes it and puts it on.
Listen to this excerpt with the interpretation of Nabucco interpreted by Renato Bruson. Bruson was an important Verdi baritone of the seventies and eighties. He came from a poor farming family, he lost his parents as a child and had to wait a long time for success. For four years the owner of a boarding house fed him until he could stand on his own feet.
Chi mi toglie – Bruson
NABUCCO ACT III
Synopsis: The Babylonian people celebrate the new queen. The high priest brings her the death sentence of Fenena.
È l’Assiria una regina – Muti
The mad Nabucco
Synopsis: The mentally deranged Nabucco appears before his daughter in tattered clothes. Abigaille shows the death sentence to her father and urges him to sign it. Nabucco signs it and he does not realize that he has also handed Fenena over.
A father/daughter duet with a magnificent orchestral accompaniment, which brilliantly comments on the alternation of their conversation between threatening and persuasive attempts.
Donna chi sei – Bruson/Bumbry
Abigaille gives the death sentence for her father and her sister
Synopsis: Nabucco recognizes his mistake and wants to expose Abigaille as a slave in order to deny her legitimacy as queen. She mockingly shows him the document and tears it up before his eyes. She makes her father her prisoner – even if it means the death sentence for him.
Another great duet sequence, while Nabucco sings his plaintive melody, we hear the restless melody of Abigaille, whose voice rises and falls along the entire register.
Di qual onta aggravarsi – Callas
Synopsis: Nabucco implores her to spare Fenena.
At this point we hear Maria Callas in one of the most famous scenes of the opera’s recording history. Let Kesting (“Great Voices”) speak about this duet with Gino Bechi: “She goes even wilder in the duet in the third act. There she acts indeed like a wildcat. First the baritone sings a plaintive melody in F minor, to which Abigaille responds with a replica in D flat major. Then the voices join and end with a vehement stretta. Whatever the reason: Bechi and Callas do not sing together but against each other – not a duet, but a duel. Although the baritone had a huge voice by nature and can strike a high A-flat with a smashing force, it is sung by Callas: her high E-flat stabs into the room like a tracer of light and it is the burning intensity of the tone with which she defies Bechi’s natural force. Abigaille is at the height of her power and Nabucco is her prisoner”.
Deh perdona – Callas/Bechi
Synopsis: The enslaved Hebrews remember their homeland and ask for God’s help.
For political reasons, this choir is interpreted as a freedom hymn or as a prisoners’ choir. But this reality is not quite complete in this way, for it is also their farewell to life, for the Jews are affected by Abigaille’s death sentence and take leave.
Va pensiero – NN
Synopsis: Zaccaria encourages his people and prophesies the end of slavery and the destruction of Babylon.
When the people enthusiastically fall into Zaccaria’s melody, the mood changes into an ecstatic atmosphere.
O chi piange del future nel buio discerno – Christoff
NABUCCO ACT IV
Synopsis: Nabucco is back to a clear mind and has gone through a purification process in captivity. He prays to the God of the Hebrews and promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
This time Verdi shows us a transformed Nabucco with a cantabile that shows human traits.
Dio di giuda – Bastiannini
Nabucco strikes back
Synopsis: Loyal warriors free Nabucco from his prison. He makes his way with this group to the temple to get back the crown of Abigaille.
Cadran, cadranno… O prodi miei – Sinopoli
Synopsis: Meanwhile, Fenena and the captured Hebrews await their execution. Fenena says goodbye to life.
At the end Fenena also gets a short aria.
Oh, dischiuse e il firmamento – Valenti-Terrani
Synopsis: Nabucco and his soldiers overwhelm the troops of Abigaille. She recognizes her defeat and takes a poison. With touching words she asks her sister for forgiveness.
With an aria by Abigaille, Verdi ends this opera. Accompanied by solo instruments, the purified child of slaves dies.
Su me… morente… esanime – Suliotis
DG, Ghena Dimitrova, Evgeny Nesterenko, Piero Cappuccilli, Placido Domingo, Lucia Valentini Terrani under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Choir & Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Peter Lutz, Opera-inside, the online opera guide to NABUCCO by Giuseppe Verdi.