Programme booklet »Nabucco«

Page 1


























2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo) 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais) 2 clarinets / 2 bassoons 4 horns / 2 trumpets 3 trombones / cimbasso timpani / percussion / 2 harps violin I / violin II / viola cello / double bass 3 clarinets / 3 horns 3 trumpets / 3 trombones 2 bombardini / tuba percussion


2 H 30 M



SYNOPSIS PART 1 – JERUSALEM Assyria and Israel are at war. Nabucco, king of the Assyrians, has occupied Jerusalem and the last survivors of the Israel­ ites – Levites and priests – have taken refuge in the sanctu­ ary of the Temple. The prophet Zaccaria seizes a hostage; it is Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, who once helped the Jew Ismaele to flee Babylon. Fenena’s sister Abigaille had held him captive out of jealousy. Now Ismaele wishes to help Fenena to flee, but both are taken by surprise by Abigaille. She tries to blackmail Ismaele, saying that only his love for her can rescue the Jews. Ismaele, however, remains true to Fenena. As Nabucco forces his way into the Temple Zaccaria tries to kill his hostage, but Ismaele blocks his arm and rescues Fenena. His people place a curse on him. All Jews are taken prisoner.

PART 2 – THE BLASPHEMER Ismaele lives, accursed, in freedom. Nabucco has given Fenena his crown for the period of his absence. The High Priest of the Babylonians sends Abigaille a secret document indicating the reason for the discrimination against her: she is the daughter of a slave. With this, Abigaille becomes subject to blackmail and thus useful for the High Priest’s claim to power. He offers her the crown, the rumor of Nabucco’s death already having been spread by the Priesthood. In an effort to end the curse on Ismaele, Fenena has freed the Jews, but they remain unforgiving. With her conversion to Ju­ daism, Fenena becomes guilty of high treason – exactly in ac­ cordance with the High Priest’s plan. Both sisters are now rivals for the throne, but the definitive struggle is between Zaccaria and the High Priest. Upon returning, Nabucco sees himself betrayed from all sides and puts a curse on both the Babylonian and the Jewish religions. As the new authority, he assumes god-like pow­ ers and plans that his first victim shall be Fenena. This presump­ tion and the misuse of his authority result in Nabucco’s collapse. Previous pages: SCENE



PART 3 – THE PROPHECY Abigaille now enjoys the power of a queen. All Jews are again in captivity, including her beloved Ismaele. The High Priest demands the destruction of them all. Nabucco, having become clairvoyant as the result of his madness, sees Abigaille’s real intentions. Father and daughter now blackmail each other; he calls her a slave, and she taunts him with his weakness as mon­ arch. Nabucco does not yet comprehend the plight of the Isra­ elites, and asks only for clemency for Fenena. This, however, is in vain, and upon signing the death sentence he is himself taken prisoner. In prison the Jews await death. Zaccaria prophecises in a blood stained vision the downfall and the destruction of all the ene­ mies of the Israelites.

PART 4 – THE FALLEN IDOL The mark of these terrible events shows on Nabucco. He laments his life as that of a murderer of an entire people as well as daughter. Suddenly the doors of the prison stand open. With the help of his soldiers, Nabucco is able to prevent the destruction of the Jews and to free Fenena. He is too late to help Abigaille, for she has taken her own life. The king of the Assyrians grants freedom to all.



NOT COFFEE-POT COZIES Nabucco is clearly not a meticulously designed opera. And the tradition of staging a true story about delusional tyrants with grandiose scenery and la­ vish costumes of indeterminate prove­ nance does not contribute much to the comprehensibility of this work. In ac­ tuality, the story that Verdi tells is a very simple one, a story about a family. An ageing ruler notices that his strength is waning, and rumours abound about a possible successor. His two daughters vie for power. The “good” daughter, surprisingly a mezzo-soprano, is Fene­ na, the “evil” daughter is Abigaille. She is the offspring of an illicit relation­ ship between Nabucco and a slave. In principle this is a Lear story – and we know that Verdi struggled with Lear all his life but was never quite coura­ geous enough to tackle it head on. The character of Nabucco is one of Verdi’s first father figures for whom he always wrote especially wrenching and beau­ tiful music. I saw this opera for the first time in Berlin when Hans Lietzau invited me to use a comp ticket. The produc­ tion by Rudolf Sellner was entirely in keep­ing with the style of the time, with huge cubes and blocks. Everything

looked very Babylonian, and after a few minutes Lietzau asked me under his breath why all the performers were wearing coffee-pot cozies on their heads. The entire evening, we continu­ ed to see Babylonian coffee-pot cozies and were entertained in a manner that was certainly not as Verdi intended. I resolved never to stage Nabucco. But in 2001 that changed! I took great pains to tell a simp­ le story in a straightforward manner, despite the convoluted intrigues. The stage is largely empty, and my set de­ signers and I used a large video projec­ tor to display Hebrew letters that emer­ ge above the stage and then disappear again. In this way, we tried to create a spiritual space for the story of Nabucco and bring it into our proximity without updating it. One passage in Nabucco has always particularly fascinated me because of its cruelty. It involves the children. Na­ bucco orders them to be put to death and says: “Mercy would be an outrage! Children seek in vain for protection at their mother’s breast.” Hatred is pas­ sed on through the children (also the “children of Israel”), and the conflicted father typical of Verdi is at the heart



of the plot. Nabucco’s weakness is evi­ dent from the beginning, his abdication of power (as in Shakespeare’s Lear) or forcible loss of power becomes evident. Politics are only the main motivator on

the surface; more important are pri­ vate emotions, happiness or disappo­ intment, being loved or rejected. And political power is only aspired to out of disappointment in love.




NOT VERDI’S FIRST OPERA – BUT THE FIRST VERDI OPERA BACKGROUND AND CREATION OF THE OPERA Nabucodonosor – as the opera was called at its world première at Milan’s La Scala on 9 March, 1842, until the ti­ tle was first shortened to Nabucco for a performance at Corfu in 1844 – is the first Verdi opera. It is not Verdi’s first opera, as the composer (regarded at the time as a late starter) had made his highly promising début at La Scala in 1839 with Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, followed a year later by Un giorno di regno, an (undeserved) failure. The aggressive public reaction (it was booed, hissed and catcalled) and the bad press led to his decision to give up composing. Beside self-doubt, the ap­ parent overreaction was due primarily to a tragedy in Verdi’s private life. In an “authentic brief autobiogra­ phy” which he released to his publisher Giulio Ricordi in 1879 for publication, to shield himself from persistent ques­ tions by reporters, he summarised this part of life succinctly: “Within a period of only two months, I had lost three beloved figures. My whole family was gone!” In retrospect, Verdi compressed

the terrible events: his first child had died in 1838, the second in the fol­ lowing year, during the rehearsals of Oberto, and his wife Margherita Barezzi died in 1840. Verdi was twenty-eight and a half at the time of his sensational success with Nabucco. His path to this success had not been easy. The composer’s circumstances were humble, and his education was only possible through personal sacrifices and with the help of donations from a connoisseur, Anto­ nio Barezzi, a businessman and Verdi’s later father-in-law, as the conservatory in Milan had rejected him as a student, and he had to study privately. After that he not only had to deal with the com­ petition, but also the jealousy, mistrust and provincial narrow-mindedness of the little town of Bussetto near Parma, the food capital of his youth. The two youthful operas still show the influence of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. Except for a few places which stand out, they could also have been by some other gifted composer of the time. In Nabucco we find for the first time the gripping sense of drama, the great popular choral melodies, the new, grandiose, virile style, which still



did not repudiate the Italian vocal tra­ dition (Verdi never did that) – ingredi­ ents which made the opera a success and clearly showed Verdi’s very per­ sonal fingerprints. In 1841, the year when Nabucco was composed (it was completed in early autumn) the world of the providers of Italian opera novelties which the pub­ lic was constantly demanding, and the aesthetics were in turmoil. A new generation was arriving. Of the three greats, Bellini died young in 1835, Rossini stopped composing operas after Guillaume Tell (1829), and only Donizetti, who had only seven more years to live, was still active. His Linda di Chamounix had earned storms of applause in Vienna in 1842, and he strongly supported his talented young colleague, whose new opera he had heard in Milan, at the Kärtnertortheat­ er. While Verdi’s older colleagues Paci­ ni, Mercadante and the Ricci brothers were all very popular, the effect of their works would not prove as lasting as Verdi’s, who established himself as the leading Italian opera composer with Nabucco, and whose position was un­ contested until the end of the century and has lasted to the present day. The story that Verdi told his pub­ lisher Ricordi in 1879 of how the im­ presario Merelli forced the Nabucco text on Verdi in Milan in the winter of 1840/41 is too clearly a legend to spell out the details here. Verdi was at the time severely depressed after the loss of his family and the disaster of Un giorno di regno, and unwilling to com­ pose, and he peevishly threw the li­ bretto aside at home, only for it to open by a stroke of fate at the slaves’ chorus “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.” After a glance at this, Verdi learned the whole

libretto by heart in a single night and immediately started composing. An entirely different and more re­ alistic version is the story Verdi told Michele Lessona in 1869, ten years before the autobiographical report, which Lessona then published in his book Volere è potere (Where there’s a will, there’s a way). “The young composer went home with the libretto [that Merelli had forced on him], threw it in a corner without looking at it, and spent the next five months reading trashy novels. One lovely day towards the end of May [1841] he picked up the reviled manuscript again. He flipped through the last scene, Abigaille’s death scene (which was cut later), sat almost me­ chanically at the piano, which had been silent for so long, and composed the scene. The ice was broken. Like someone emerging from a musty, dark cell and breathing the fresh air of the meadows again, Verdi suddenly found himself back in his element. Within three months, Nabucco was finished, in every respect as we know it today.” Verdi himself confirmed this ver­ sion to his friend Arrivabene when Lessona’s book appeared. “This is the absolutely true story of my life,” even if the piano could not “have been silent for so long” as Verdi said, given that he had in the meantime rewritten all the numbers in Oberto and adapted the main role for a baritone.

THE LIBRETTO Temistocle Solera had chosen the story of Nebuchadnezzar from an unreward­ ing source (II Kings 24, 25) and made up the other dramatis personae out of whole cloth. At least, this was what



was originally believed. When Nabucco was first performed in Paris, Au­ guste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornue, authors of a successful play entitled Nabuchodonosor which had been performed in 1836 at the Paris Théâtre l’Ambigu-Comique, appeared, claiming that parts of the opera libretto were taken from their play. This turned out to be true, and Verdi’s publisher Ri­ cordi grudgingly had to pay out 1,000 francs in royalties. Solera had also drawn inspiration from Antonio Cort­ esi’s Nabucodonosor ballet (which had its world première at La Scala in 1838). However, in its present definitive form, Solera wrote the libretto primar­ ily from his own imagination, with only a very small part influenced by Verdi (late in his old age, Verdi still re­ membered him with pleasure, speak­ ing of him as the “strongest of my librettists”). The French play was for­ mally very conventional, run-of-themill writing which has little in com­ mon with the Solera text. As an almost unknown beginner, Verdi was unable to impose his desires so tyrannically as he was later with his friend Franc­ esco Maria Piave. Even so, he pushed through changes such as the replace­ ment of an already composed love duet between Fenena and Ismaele, which he found unconvincing, by the famous prophecy of Zaccaria.

A TEXT FOR OTTO NICOLAI Solera’s Nabucodonosor libretto was not written for or commissioned by Verdi. Merelli first offered it to the Prussian Otto Nicolai (Königsberg 1810-Berlin 1849), who held his own with the successful composers of the day with his Italian opera Il templario

(based on Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, Turin 1840). Nicolai refused the libret­ to and chose Il proscritto instead. This had originally been offered to Verdi, who turned it down. This opera failed in March 1841, just like Verdi’s melo­ dramma giocoso Un giorno di regno. The failure put an abrupt end to Nicolai’s career in Italy (the opera was performed in Vienna in 1844 under the title Die Heimkehr des Verbannten). He demanded to be released from his con­ tract by Merelli, which was done, and he went to Vienna. There, he learned with fury of Nabucco’s success. In his diary, Nicolai wrote to his Italian col­ leagues and Verdi, “How far Italy has fallen in the last five years?! Donizet­ ti lives almost all the time in Paris or Vienna, the city where he has been ap­ pointed court music director and com­ poser for life with a salary of 4,000 gul­ den and does nothing more for Italy. Rossini is completely silent. The person writing operas in Italy now is Verdi. He’s even composed Nabucodonosor, the libretto I rejected, and been very successful with it. In truth, his operas are really dreadful, and bring Italy right down. I don’t see how Italy can go any lower with this out­ put, and I don’t want to write any more operas there.” Nicolai’s frustration is clear. But the annoyance at the success of the opera of his near-peer is less envy than awareness of the limited nature of the music drama resources available. “The new libretto by Temistocle Solera Nabuco [sic] was absolutely im­ possible to set to music – I had to turn it down, convinced that rage, blood­ shed, cursing, beating and murder was no subject for me. Nabuco was worth­ less. Il proscritto was worthless.“



The academic question what Nicolai would have made of the libretto is moot. As the composer himself stressed, it was outside his scope, in terms of theme and composition. Solera’s text does not claim to be great literature (a more than legiti­ mate attitude) and does what an opera libretto has to do – provide the hearer with what they need to understand the action and give the music a framework with which to develop all its potential. Put simply, you can say that what the libretto doesn’t say or can only sug­ gest, is said by the music. Alternative­ ly, a good libretto shouldn’t have great literary qualities, otherwise it wouldn’t need the music. And a poor libretto can never get in the way of a good opera. It’s always the composer who writes a great opera, never the librettist. The exceptions of literary operas by Fibich, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Berg or Janáček confirm the rule, Boito’s Shakespearean operas aren’t Shake­ speare, but just a part which is suitable for the operatic stage. Wagner was his own sacrosanct Shakespeare, whatev­ er we think of his libretti. Nicolai, who repeatedly mocked the state of opera in Italy in his letters, and was no great friend of the country after he left it – including because his fiancée for a brief period, the soprano Erminia Frezzolini (she sang in two Verdi world premières, I lombardi alla prima crociata and Giovanna d’Arco) left him to marry the tenor Antonio Poggi – scored his only lasting success a few months before his early death with Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Berlin, 1849). However, the libretto by Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal is based solely on the comic aspects of Shakespeare’s play, with the result that

the opera became a staid, superficial farce. As fate would have it, Nicolai’s setting of the Shakespearean piece ironically used the same material that Verdi used in 1893 at the close of his incomparable career for Falstaff, with the difference that his librettist Arri­ go Boito drew on passages of text and characterisation and suggestions from other Shakespearean dramas, creating a work with philosophical depths.

WORLD PREMIÈRE OF NABUCCO AND THE START OF VERDI’S INTERNATIONAL CAREER IN VIENNA Before the world première of Nabucodonosor, there were still some dif­ ficulties to be overcome, as Merelli wanted to set the opera aside for the time being. He already had three oth­ er new operas by successful compos­ ers in the programme. Another new work by a composer who had already failed once seemed to be an unneces­ sary risk. When Verdi’s new opera did not appear on the La Scala schedule in December, the youthful hothead gave his impresario an ultimatum: Nabucco would appear either in the carnival season or not at all. Verdi won the support of two ma­ jor singers at La Scala, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (who would be­ come his second wife) and the baritone Giorgio Ronconi. Together, Strepponi and Ronconi (the later outstanding performer of the title role) persuaded Merelli to stage the world première of Nabucco, subject to certain restrictions. No new production was required, as they were able to draw on the sets and costumes of the 1838 Nabucodonosor ballet by Antonio Cortesi mentioned



earlier. The solution proved entirely satisfactory, in Verdi’s own words. The première of Nabucco took place at La Scala on 9 March 1842. The opera was such an unparallelled success that after the first season (of eight perfor­ mances) in the Scala autumn season, it had to be repeated 57 times from 13 August, an all-time record for perfor­ mances. This success laid the foundation of Verdi’s international career. His first foreign trip took him to Vienna, where at the urging of Gaetano Donizetti (who rehearsed the opera himself ) Verdi con­ ducted two performances of Nabucodonosor himself in early 1843 at the K&K Court Opera by the Kärtnertor. These are the first performances of a Verdi op­ era outside Italy (insofar as you can talk about “Italy”, given the political config­ uration of the country at the time under its various occupying powers). The critic Eduard Hanslick launched a campaign against Ver­ di with his Nabucco review. “Mister Temistocle Solera deserves a crown of holly for his libretto instead of lau­ rels. He distorts the biblical story with blithe shamelessness. In addition, his arbitrary inventions lack all inner truth and poetry. Besides the usual shortcomings of Italian opera – which have reached monstrous dimensions here – the music shows a striking lack of flowing, melodious song.” He continued in his vein of absurd criticisms of Verdi’s works until Falstaff, which he heard in Rome in 1893. He ranked this wonder of the world of opera (to coin a phrase in augmenta­ tion of “absolute masterpiece”) below Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, making himself a laughingstock among critics.

Verdi was enthusiastic about the or­ chestra of the K&K Court Opera. This was the original form of the Vienna Philharmonic, created by Nicolai, whose first concert on 28 March 1842 was described on the posters as the “Philharmonische Akademie” and in the programme leaflet as “a grand concert.” The second concert on 27 November 1842, at which “all the members of the orchestra of the K&K Court Opera” played was described as “the second Philharmonic concert”, al­ though there had been no first concert of this name. With this outstanding orchestra, Verdi learned of innovations in the arrangement of the orchestral musicians which he recommended the Italian opera houses to follow. From this point, Verdi, who would return to Vienna in 1875 to conduct four performances of his new Messa da requiem and two of Aïda, repeat­ edly expressed his appreciation of the groups at the Vienna Court Opera. For example, he wrote to his friend Coun­ tess Clarina Maffei (21 February 1879): “I have repeatedly heard people in Mi­ lan call La Scala the leading theatre in the world, and people in Naples call San Carlo the leading theatre in the world. Earlier, people called La Fen­ ice in Venice the leading theatre in the world, and St Petersburg the leading theatre in the world. In Vienna, they say that they have the leading theatre in the world, and I would agree.” Looking at Nabucco, which after its Vienna première became one of Ver­ di’s most popular and most performed operas, and comparing it directly with operas in the same period by other famous composers, it is easy to rec­ ognise the novelty of his forceful mu­ sical language. The operas by Italian



composers around the same time are Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment (1840), La Favorite (1840), Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Don Pasquale (1843), Pacini’s Saffo (1840) and Medea (1843), Mercadante’s Il proscritto (1841) and Il reggente (1843), Luigi Ricci’s Le nozze di Figaro (1838) and Federico Ricci’s Luigi Rolla e Michelangelo (1841), Corrado da Altamura (1841) and Vallombra (1842). Outside Italy there were works which the Italian public would only discover decades later (if at all). Aub­ er triumphed with Les Diamants de la Couronne (1841), Thomas’s Le comte de Carmagnola (1841) remained unknown for the time being, Wagner stood out with his grand opéra Rienzi (1842) and Der fliegende Holländer (1843), Glin­ ka finally made his mark with Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), Flotow made his name with Alessandro Stradella (1844), Lortzing followed Zar und Zimmermann (1837) and Hans Sachs (1840) with Undine (1845). Nabucodonosor’s success was due not so much to the interest of Italian Catholics in Old Testament materials (biblical subjects had been rarely used for operas up to that point, with the notable exceptions of Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon and Mehul’s Joseph en Egypte), as to the circumstance that the Milan audiences were able to project their attitude to the prevailing political sit­ uation (northern Italy was occupied by Austria and France). However, the fact that several of Verdi’s operas hit the nerve of Italy’s prevailing political situation in the sense of a liberation movement was not calculated, but an unintended side effect. Nobody could have predicted that the public would take the first se­ ries of performances of Nabucodono-

sor, written by Solera for Nicolai, who was politically completely unaware and uninterested in the Italian situa­ tion, and would identify with the Jews subjugated by the Babylonians, or that the “Va, pensiero” chorus would be­ come the secret national anthem of the Risorgimento. The only opera chosen by Verdi with politics in mind as a reaction to the events of 1848 was La battaglia di Legnano (which had its world première in January 1849). The historical tale of the victory of the Lombard League, an alliance of several northern Italian and predominantly Lombard cities, over Emperor Frederick I (“Barbarossa”) at Legnano in 1176 inspired the composer in part because Legnano was still un­ der Austrian rule in 1848, giving it po­ litical actuality, and although he was forced by the censors to write about a historical event, he was sure the pub­ lic would understand that it was really about 1848.

TWO PREMIÈRE SINGERS The baritone Giorgio Ronconi (b. Mi­ lan 1810, d. Madrid 1890) played a deci­ sive role in the success. Coached by his father, the tenor and voice teacher Do­ menico Ronconi (1772-1839), the sing­ er débuted in 1831 in Pavia in Bellini’s La straniera. Donizetti heard of the unusual vocal gifts of the young singer. Ronconi was classified as a basso can­ tante (a similar category to bass bari­ tone), but he had an excellent, almost tenor top, and felt at ease in a high tes­ situra. These qualities suited Donizet­ ti’s ideas, and he composed Cardenio for Ronconi, the main role in Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo (Rome, 1833), a role comparable in tessitura with



Rigoletto and half as long as that role, although less dramatic. Donizetti followed this role for Ronconi with the title role in Torquato Tasso (also Rome, 1833) and the bar­ itone roles in Il campanello (Naples, 1836), Pia de’ Tolomei (Venice, 1837), Maria di Rudenz (Venice, 1838), Maria Padilla (Milan, 1841) and Maria di Rohan (Vienna, 1843). Ronconi sang at La Scala from 1839, where Giuseppe Ver­ di regarded his voice highly and wrote the part of Nabucco for him (although Ronconi would not return to La Scala after the first eight performances of Nabucco). Ronconi also sang the main roles in Ernani and I due Foscari for Verdi, who described the singer not only as “highly expressive” but as “an artist.” He can be described as the first true baritone in the history of Italian opera. The soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (b. Lodi 1815, d. Sant’Agata 1897), who is famous as Verdi’s highly intelligent, educated, multilingual, sensitive but also vulnerable wife, had significant problems and only a modest success with the role of Abigaille. She received damning reviews in several newspa­ pers. Many asked why this singer, with a repertoire of coloratura and lyric roles in operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Mercadante, Auber, Rossini, Pacini etc., was cast in the highly dramat­ ic role of Abigaille. One possible an­ swer is that Verdi originally had Sofia Loewe, engaged at La Scala for the season, in mind for this role, and that Strapponi was a last-minute choice for unknown reasons. Temistocle Solera, Nabucco’s libret­ tist, left a flowery report of the start of the singer’s career. “In just five years, where she has performed to lively and

friendly applause, she has appeared from a blooming age of just under 24 in over 27 prominent theatres – Vien­ na, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Rome, Turin – and early last year the cultured public of Milan have admired in this young woman the fairest gifts of na­ ture, perfected by constant practice. [...] Graced with unusual sensitivity, she understands how to use her voice and expressiveness to win the hearts of audiences. Sophisticated and lov­ able in society, a model daughter and sister, she has generously taken up her whole family and had her young­ er sisters educated in the best schools at her expense.” Thanks to her bal­ anced judgement and intelligence, she gained a voice in the power struggles and intrigues at La Scala. Nabucco with or without the role of Abigaille – a role unsuitable for her voice – in any case was a moderate success. She only sang the role of Abigaille in eight performances at La Scala, and was replaced by Teresa De Giuli in the revival of the opera in August 1842, and in Vienna. However, she sang the role later in Bologna, Verona, Ales­ sandria and Modena. In 1843 Nabucco was performed in Parma, again with Strepponi as Abigaille, but this time with Verdi conducting. In 1847 she ended her career at just 32, after final concert appearances. From 1846 she is documented as living with Verdi, they married privately in 1859, and despite various upheavals they remained mar­ ried until Giuseppina’s death in 1897.

THE MUSIC What was it about Nabucco that roused the Milan public to such a pitch of en­ thusiasm that they stormed La Scala,



and barely enough performances could be scheduled to meet the demand for tickets? In Nabucco, Verdi – who is already recognisable as the born opera drama­ tist with an unerring instinct for effect on the stage – shows his superiority over his predecessors Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti with one key move. He stands out stylistically from them in the way that he replaces the previous loose assembly of musical numbers with a breakdown into closed musical scenes, anticipating his future development. He also gave each of the four parts of the opera a heading – “Gerusalemme – L’empio – La profezia – L’idolo in­ franto” ( Jerusalem – The blasphemer – The prophecy – The fallen idol). This, together with the designation “parte” (part) instead of “atto” (act) indicates that this does not involve a constant psychological development of the characters, but four static scenes in which the finished characters confront the specific situation. The course of the action proceeds without gaps, the ideal of the virtuo­ so ornamented singing, the process of subordinating character interpretation to pure beauty of tone which had de­ generated in places to an end in itself, is consistently rejected in favour of sharply contoured expressive singing which strives for dramatic truth (a de­ mand Verdi often made) and does not even stop at strident effects. This is also reflected in the vocal categories preferred by Verdi. Low male voices are increasingly empha­ sised (the character of Nabucco is the progenitor of the shattered father figures such as Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra or King Lear, a story which Verdi struggled with for fifty years, but whose complet­

ed libretto by Antonio Somma he never set) Tenors are shunted into the back­ ground as sometimes weak characters (Ismaele, Foresto in Attila, Carlo Moor in I masnadieri), the sopranos are given dramatic functions (Abigaille, Odabella in Attila, Lady Macbeth). The singing voice is still – and will remain for Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Catalani and continue with Respighi, Montemezzi and Piz­ zetti – the medium for musical expres­ sion, but the orchestra no longer serves as a guitar-like accompaniment but moves into the foreground with what were previously inconceivably stark ef­ fects. Huge dynamic contrasts, abrupt tutti chords, accented brass entries, tight rhythms and often extremely fast tempi together with skilful instrumen­ tation (for example many effective dark woodwind effects, perfected in later works) aim at previously unknown emotions in the listener (Nabucco was sometimes called Verdi’s “loudest” opera). But Verdi also achieved effects in chamber musical style. The cello in­ troduction to Zaccaria’s prayer, “Vieni, o Levita! ... Tu sul labbro” testifies to Verdi’s knowledge of the chamber mu­ sic and oratorio literature (he not only knew all the Haydn quartets but had also conducted The Creation in Milan a few years before composing Nabucco). Only the overtures, put together like potpourri from various themes in the opera, and a few conventional col­ oratura cadenzas pay tribute to his old­ er colleagues and public taste. The libretto is given a dynamic by the music which you would not expect from reading it. The conflict between Abigaille and Nabucco is balanced by the choral mass of the enslaved Jews,



which takes on a dominant dramatic and musical role in the famous “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.” The effect of this chorus and the patriotic creed pro­ jected in it assumed a significance go­ ing beyond the operatic situation even during the first series of performances at La Scala, and took on an independ­ ent life. The chorus became a sort of secret national anthem in the course of the Italian liberation movement. Solera can be credited with em­ phasising the dramatic weight of this chorus, but neither he nor Verdi were aware at any time of the possible polit­ ical interpretations. This is the first of the monumental patriotic choruses – or, more accurately, the choruses evok­ ing patriotic emotions and reactions in their hearers – which can be found in many Verdi operas of the earlier period. However naïve they may sometimes appear, however banal or even vulgar several of them may appear to disdain­ ful hearers north of the Alps who had grown up with the German classics and Romantic works, they are honestly and passionately composed. With the popularity they achieved through their

overwhelming musical force and capti­ vating rhythmic vitality, they are capa­ ble of carrying an entire work.

THE RESULTS: FAME, COMMISSIONS AND “GALLEY YEARS” Nabucco made Verdi a celebrity com­ poser overnight. He began attending the cultured literary salons of Countess Clarina Maffei in Milan, who was to become a lifelong friend, and Giusep­ pina Appiani, and despite his still un­ polished social manners was quickly accepted by the Milanese aristocrats setting the tone of musical society. He would later remember, “Nabucco is the opera that really marked the start of my actual artistic career.” And, “After Nabucco, I got all the commissions I wanted.” The much-quoted anni di galera (looking back, Verdi wrote to Clarina Maffei on 12 May, 1858, “You could say that I never had a moment’s rest after Nabucco – sixteen years in the galleys!”) – were the start of the years in which Verdi worked like a galley slave, to the point of collapse.




THE MYTH OF “VA, PENSIERO” VERDI: A PROPHET OF THE RISORGIMENTO? Despite its undisputed musical quality, it’s ultimately other references of a per­ sonal and political nature which give Nabucco its extraordinary status. First, there are the personal circumstances. Verdi’s private and artistic life in the period before Nabucco was as bad as it could be. Within two years, both his children and his young wife had died. The “frightful torment of soul” Ver­ di spoke of later of having compose a comic opera (Un giorno di regno) after these calamities is entirely credible, like his reaction after the opera’s fail­ ure “that art held no comfort for me” and he “never wanted to compose an­ other note.” After these experiences he allegedly unwillingly let Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, press a libretto on him which Otto Nicolai had rejected as impossible to set. However – “When I got home, I threw the book on the table so violently that it bounced off and lay at my feet. It had opened in falling, and without being aware of it I found my­ self looking at the open page, with this line: ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.’”

This recollection of the birth of Nabucco, undoubtedly adorned by Verdi with legendary touches, comes from one of his few personal contributions, the autobiographical outline of his early years that he officially released to his publisher Ricordi in 1879. This story was first revealed to a broader public through its publication in Vita aneddotica di Verdi (1881) by Folchetto (ac­ tually Jacopo Caponi). The book was published by Ricordi in Milan and was accordingly “authorised” by the ulti­ mate authority. As the first Verdi biography it is ex­ tremely important for its influence, as it is the basis of all further works on Verdi. Subsequent generations of Ver­ di researchers have drawn on it, and – often without further investigation – passed on the political image of Verdi described there, an image which Fol­ chetto, a music and drama critic by oc­ cupation, has given strongly patriotic features. He wrote: “With Nabucco and I lombardi Verdi started – I want to say almost instinctively at first – to encourage po­ litical action with his music. Foreigners will never be able to understand what influence the fiery, blazing melodies


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Verdi created had at a certain time, if situations or even individual lines re­ minded him of Italy’s unhappy state. The public recognised references every­ where, but Verdi found them first and moulded them into an enthusiastic music which often ended by causing a revolution in the theatre.” The choruses “Va, pensiero” and “O Signore, dal tetto natìo” were the “first political demon­ strations which signalled the reawak­ ening of Lombardy and Venice.” The image of Verdi as “prophet of the Risorgimento” essentially has two components. The first is characteris­ ing Verdi as a “musician of patriotic instinct.” In this view, “Va, pensiero” is only superficially the lament of the “Hebrew slaves” for their lost home­ land, Israel. In fact, in this view, Verdi and his librettist Solera conceived the chorus as a political metaphor for the Italians in Lombardy and Venice, at the time under Austrian occupation. In the new critical edition of Nabucco, the musicologist Roger Parker has revealed this alleged political sub­ text of the opera as projection by con­ temporaries and subsequent writers, noting that the chorus and Zaccaria’s “prophecy” which immediately fol­ lows form a single unit, musically and in their content. The other component – described in more detail below – is the alleged politi­ cal “influence” (Folchetto) and the patri­ otic and revolutionary effect of Verdi’s early operas. This view was undoubt­ edly encouraged by the fact that Verdi’s first great musical successes Nabucco, I lombardi and Ernani coincided with the first climax of the Italian liberation and unification movement in 1846, with the patriotic writings of Gioberti, Balbo and d’Azeglio, the 1845 uprisings in Ro­

magna and the election of Pope Pius IX in 1846, who initially appeared liberal. Against this historical background a close connection was frequently constructed between art and politics. Verdi’s choruses in the early 1840s ac­ cordingly became “harbingers of the Risorgimento” (the name “Risorgi­ mento” was created by the Turin news­ paper Risorgimento, which Cavour only founded at the end of 1847), which were alleged to have inspired storms of patriotic enthusiasm in the theatre. People went so far as to misrepresent reviews of premières in contemporary music journals in patriotic terms. Roger Parker identified such a process by Fran­ co Abbiati, still highly regarded as the author of a monumental four-volume biography of Verdi (1959). The review of the world première of Nabucco cited by Abbiati reporting public demonstra­ tions demanding the encore of the cho­ rus despite a ban by the Austrian policy is quite simply an invention. This anecdote is clearly extremely resilient in the face of such research. Even in the latest publications in con­ nection with the centenary of Verdi’s death, the chorus is glorified as politi­ cal. Dramaturge and author Christoph Schwandt for example writes: “The slave’s chorus from Nabucco became … the unofficial national anthem of a state which did not exist until 1861” (Frankfurter Rundschau, 27 January, 2001), and for the doyen of Italian journalism, Giorgio Bocca, Nabucco is still a story by a “patriotic” composer which deals with the struggle for liberty, love or the fatherland and demonstrations in the theatre (La Repubblica, 27 January, 2001). An unprejudiced evaluation of the sources of that era fails to support this



idea of a patriotic reception of Verdi’s early operas by his contemporaries. While all reviews of the world première of Nabucco cite and particularly praise “Va, pensiero”, there is no mention any­ where of a patriotic and revolutionary effect of the chorus on the audience. The same goes for the second series of performances of the opera. The 57 re­ peat performances in the 1842 autumn season – a record in the history of La Scala – primarily documents its great success with the public. If there had been political demon­ strations during the performances, the responsible Austrian theatre po­ lice would have responded, as they did in the riots at the start of 1848, when La Fenice was closed briefly, or 1859, when further performances were pro­ hibited of Bellini’s Norma at La Scala and Trieste and I puritani in Venice. In all known reviews of the numer­ ous productions of Nabucco in Italy up to the 1848/49 revolutions, there is no hint of patriotic statements or a recep­ tion of “Va, pensiero” as a symbol of Italians’ nationalist hopes. By contrast, the press frequently mentions the duet between Abigaille and Nabucco in Act 3, the impressive finali and the closing hymn “Immenso Jehova.” The press censorship in force at the time only partly explains this fact, as there are occasional reports of patriot­ ic demonstrations at performances of plays, opera and ballet, particularly in the phase of growing politicisation of the Italian public in the years 1846/47. Audiences were “inflamed” in this pe­ riod by choruses by Rossini and Mer­ cadante, and also by Verdi. For exam­ ple, at various performances of Ernani in Bologna and Rome to honour the new “reform” Pope Pius IX in the hymn

(finale act 3) to the emperor Charles V, the chorus line “A Carlo Quinto sia gloria e onor” was replaced by “A Pio Nono sia gloria e onor”. The public used performances of Attila at the end of January, 1848 in San Carlo near Na­ ples as an occasion to celebrate the Bourbon King Ferdinand II – a foreign ruler – for his recently ordered liberal reorganization of his ministry and the announcement of a constitution for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Despite the censorship, all the places were applauded which had to do with “freedom” even remotely, and calls like “Ferdinando il Grande” rang out through the opera house. These demon­ strations were tributes to a ruler, and as such more inclined to promote stabi­ lisation of the system, rather than up­ risings or revolution. Among Verdi’s operas, the only chorus perceived as supporting the Risorgimento was the chorus of the Scottish refugees from Macbeth. When this opera opened the carnival season on 26 December, 1847 in Venice, then under Austrian occupa­ tion, the audience at La Fenice storm­ ily demanded an encore of the chorus “Patria oppressa.” The 1848 revolutions also passed without an explicit expression of the feelings of patriotic Italians towards their alleged national hero and “prophet”. First, there was a lack of opportunity. During the carnival season (December 1847 to March 1848) no Verdi operas were played at La Scala, and after the successful Milan revolution and the expulsion of the Austrians (the “cinque giornata”, 18-22 March, 1848) the house, like many other Italian opera houses, was closed for economic reasons. By contrast, the popular Teatro Car­ cano performed revolutionary patriotic


T H E M Y T H OF “ VA , P E N S I E RO ”

plays such as La caduta del Dispotismo or La caduta d’un imperio. On 24 April, 1848, the same house staged the first opera in liberated Milan with Auber’s La Muta di Portici (according to a not quite so famous legend, this opera is supposed to have initiated the Belgian revolution in Brussels in 1830). Verdi’s publisher Ricordi announced the pub­ lication of a series of patriotic pieces, including a cantata to Pius IX by Gio­ achino Rossini. Until the reconquest of Milan by the Austrians in August 1848, neither the theatrical press briefly freed from Austrian censorship nor the gen­ eral public showed particular interest in Verdi’s music. Instead, the Milanese preferred patriotic songs and the mili­ tant hymns to liberated Milan and the national hope Pius IX, which compos­ ers virtually unknown today produced en masse. The situation was very much the same in other Italian cities. In Bologna, I lombardi was cancelled, despite the patriotic chorus “O Signore, dal tetto natìo” to sing national choruses, in Na­ ples Nabucco had only modest success, because people there demanded typical Italian music, not tales of Middle East­ ern antiquity, and in Venice patriotic proclamations were more popular than Pacini’s new opera. The Austrian offi­ cials clearly were not fearing any pa­ triotic demonstrations in winter 1848, when they allowed performances of Ernani, Attila and Nabucco at the reo­ pened La Scala in Milan. The months before the Franco-Pied­ montese war against Austria in early 1859 showed a similar picture. Perfor­ mances of Simon Boccanegra (Milan), Il trovatore (Florence) and La battaglia di Legnano (Turin) went smoothly, in the 1859 autumn season in Rome Donizet­

ti’s Lucia di Lammermoor replaced the unsuccessful I lombardi. Clearly, the Italians at the time of the second war of liberation in 1859 did not want the­ atrical metaphors, but art which could be directly and unmistakably linked to their own current political situation. At the start of 1859, the chorus “Guer­ ra, guerra” from Bellini’s Norma was cheered in Venice and Milan, and the successful uprising in Auber’s La Muta di Portici was fêted in Florence. At the end of 1859 “Guerra, guerra” was again celebrated in Trieste, still under Austri­ an occupation, as was the duet to free­ dom “Suoni la tromba” from Bellini’s I puritani in Venice. If the patriotic reception of Verdi’s music up to 1859 is a myth, how could Verdi and above all “Va, pensiero” still become a symbol of the Risorgimento? To answer this question, we must look at the historical situation at the time. After the success of the wars of liber­ ation in 1859/60 – Austria’s defeat and retreat from Lombardy, the expulsion of the rulers from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchies of Parma and Modena, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – the Kingdom of Italy was of­ ficially proclaimed at the start of 1861. For the first time in centuries, this left Italy free from Spanish, French and Austrian foreign rule. Given the lack of historical precedents, the national identity necessarily had to be “con­ structed”, whether by national heroes, myths or legends. While Dante Alighieri was elevated to the “prophet” of Italian unification by patriotically inclined academics, Verdi was the popular national hero. According to newspapers from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, Ital­ ian patriots discovered the political sig­



nificance of Verdi’s name in the winter of 1858/59, during the heated period before the war of 1859. In Florence, the greeting “Viva Verdi!” was widespread, in Modena and Milan, youths painted graffiti with Verdi’s name on walls. V.E.R.D.I. This stood for “Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (Victorio Ema­ nuel, King of Italy) and was the symbol for the liberation from Austrian foreign rule in northern Italy and a united Italy under the King of Piedmont. Verdi’s appearance on the political stage promoted the creation of the po­ litical Verdi myth. In mid-September 1859, as a member of the Parma Depu­ tation, he was welcomed triumphantly by the people of Turin in advance of giving the King of Piedmont the results of the vote of his home province in fa­ vour of political union with Piedmont. At the start of 1861, he reluctantly took office as a delegate of the first Italian parliament (1861-68), under massive pressure from Cavour as the first Italian minister-president.

It was not until the successful creation of Italy as a nation state that newspa­ per articles gave political significance to the choruses from Verdi’s early operas Nabucco, I lombardi and Ernani. Looking back to the beginnings of the Risorgimento, Verdi was now estab­ lished as the great Italian patriot, the “prophet” of Italian unity, and finally the “genio musicale” who instinctively set the emotions of “patria” and “lib­ ertà” to music, musically anticipating Italy’s unification. The fact that “Va, pensiero” achieved such significance, rather than another chorus expressing similar feelings, such as “O Signore, dal tetto natìo” (I lombardi) or “Patria oppressa” (Macbeth) undoubtedly has much to do with the personal, histori­ cal and political background described above. However, the lasting success of the composition was ultimately due to the extraordinary quality of the music – the measured, unison vocal line, the steady, natural rhythm, and the memo­ rability of the simple melody, plain and unembellished.



“Wherever possible, the dictator wants to do everything himself. He does not leave anything to his simple ministers: neither cultivating sugar beet nor urban planning and certainly not foreign policy. His power seems to be engaged 24 hours a day. Ideally the dictator does not need any sleep. Emperor Haile Selassie’s subjects recounted that the emperor always suffered an outburst of wrath when he woke up. Nature had overpowered him and forced him to sleep for several hours. All dictators hate sleep, because it is during this time that their power rests.”


POWER AND SURVIVAL “TODAY I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SURVIVAL [...] AND WILL TRY TO SHOW THAT THIS SURVIVAL IS AT THE CORE OF EVERY­T HING THAT WE – SOMEWHAT VAGUELY – CALL POWER.” [...] the feeling of happiness at actually surviving is intense pleasure. Once ad­ mitted and accepted, it will demand to be repeated and will rapidly grow into a passion that is insatiable. Anyone ob­ sessed with it will adopt styles of social living to embrace it in such a way that it serves to indulge this passion. The passion is the power. It is so closely bound to the fact of death that it seems natural to us; we accept it as we accept death, without truly ques­ tioning it, indeed without seriously contemplating its ramifications and impact. Anyone who has gained a taste for survival seeks to increase it. He will try to bring about situations in which he survives many different situations at once. The diffuse moments of surviv­ al that daily existence offers will no longer suffice for him. It all takes far too long; he cannot move things along. [...] Those who are happy to go to war act with the conviction that they will

return, it will not affect them; it is a kind of reverse lottery in which the only numbers that win are those that are not picked. Those who are happy to go to war go with confidence, and this confidence is based on the expectation that the fallen of both sides, including one’s own, are all other people, and he is the survivor. In this way, war offers the sim­ ple man who may seem to be nothing special during peacetime the opportu­ nity to experience a feeling of power, namely precisely where this feeling has its roots: in cumulative survival. The presence of the dead cannot be avoided here, everything is based on it; and even those who have not personal­ ly achieved much in this direction are elevated by the spectacle of the fallen amongst whose number they are not. What carries the gravest sanctions in peacetime is not demanded of one person, it is effected with the masses. The survivor returns with an elevated sense of self, even if the war did not



come out well for his side. Otherwise, there would not be an explanation for the fact that people who have truly un­ derstood the gruesome aspects of war can forget or idealise these so quickly. Something of the lustre of inviolability glows around all those who return safely. But not everyone is so simple, not everyone is satisfied with this. There is a more active form of this experience, and it is that form that is more inter­ esting to us here. One individual alone cannot kill as many people as his pas­ sion for survival may desire. But he can cause or direct others to do this. [...] The famous conquerors in history collectively took this path, and vir­ tues of all kinds were later ascribed to them. For centuries, historians dil­ igently weighed their virtues to come to what they believed was an equitable judgement of them. Their fundamental naivety in this endeavour is palpable. In effect they succumb to the fasci­ nation of a power that has long since vanished. [...] Since history has progressed, it is always easy to find an apparent mean­

ing for its continuity; and care is taken to ensure that this meaning is given a kind of dignity. In this context, the truth has no dignity at all. It is as dis­ graceful as it was destructive. What comes into play here is the private pas­ sion of the ruler; his passion for sur­ vival grows with his power; his power allows him to yield to it. The real sub­ stance of this power is the desire to survive the masses. [...] The actual intention of the true rul­ er is as grotesque as it is incredible: he wants to be the only one. He wants to survive everyone so that no one out­ lives him. He wants to avoid death at any price, and therefore no one, ab­ solutely no one should be there who could cause his death. As long as peo­ ple are there, no matter who they are, he will never feel safe. Even his guards who protect him from his enemies may turn against him. The proof that he is secretly afraid of those to whom he gives orders is not difficult to furnish; and he is always overcome by fears of his immediate surroundings. There have been some in power who for this reason did not want to have a son. [...]



NABUCCO FROM A PSYCHOTHER­APEUTICAL POINT OF VIEW Before we look more closely at the two main characters Nabucco and Abi­ gaille, let’s look at some other relevant analogies and constellations of char­ acters. As in the first two and several later operas, there is the father-daugh­ ter theme – in the case of Nabucco there are even two (assumed) or (half ) sisters. Suppression and slavery of a people, love bridging hostile nations, love triangles, a father’s power over his daughter – we find all this in Aïda. As Fenena is held by the Hebrews, Aïda is held prisoner by the Egyptians. The Ethiopian king’s daughter Aïda loves the Egyptian Radames, the Bab­ ylonian king’s daughter Fenena loves the Hebrew Ismaele. Both have a ri­ val – Aïda has the Egyptian princess Amneris, Fenena her alleged sister Abigaille. And both operas involve the power or impotence of a father, Nabuc­ co and Amonasro. The main difference between the stories lies in the weight­ ing of the love story and the layout of the relationships. In Nabucco the love between Ismaele and Fenena is pushed into the background, compared to the

fate of the Jewish people and Abigaille and Nabucco The love duet was cut from the li­ bretto by Verdi, and there is no great fi­ nal scene between the lovers, although there is nothing in the way of a happy ending. The situation is entirely differ­ ent in Aïda, where the love between Radames and Aïda and her tragic fate are at the centre of the action. There is another parallel with a story which tasked Verdi for 50 years, which he seriously wanted to com­ pose, whose libretto was probably fin­ ished (by Antonio Somma), but which he never got to. This is Shakespeare’s King Lear. And again the father-daugh­ ter motif is at the centre of the action. Shakespeare also deals with the abdi­ cation of a king and the transfer of his power to one of his daughters. In Nabucco there is one good and one evil daughter, in King Lear there is one good daughter and two evil ones. Like Nabucco, Lear also becomes tem­ porarily insane. A year after the success of Nabucco, years before his first Shake­ speare opera Macbeth, Verdi planned


N A B U C C O F R O M A P S Y C H O T H E R ­A P E U T I C A L P O I N T O F V I E W

to compose Re Lear (1843), which plagued him until 1893. The title role is Verdi’s first great dra­ matic baritone role. We first see Nabuc­ co as a powerful and brutal ruler, who has no problem with desecrating the Hebrew temple. During his campaign, he is falsely declared dead. When he returns victorious, he probably thinks he is immortal. He proclaims himself the god of both peoples, Babylonians and the Jews. His megalomania is pun­ ished with madness. (Stage direction: “Thunder, lightning strikes the king’s head. Nebuchadnezzar is terrified be­ cause his crown is torn from his head by a supernatural power. His face shows signs of madness.”) In the third part Nabucco appears “with a tangled beard and in dishevelled clothing.” In opera literature, disarray is a frequent external sign of madness. (Other ex­ amples are Daniel-François-Esprit Au­ ber’s Masaniello in La Muta de Portici and the mad miller in Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka.) But is Nabucco really “in­ sane” in the clinical sense? The medical criteria of insanity are 1. subjective certainty – the victim is convinced of the reality of their delu­ sions, 2. incorrigibility – they are un­ affected by experience and inevitable conclusions, and 3. the impossibility of the ideas. None of these apply to Na­ bucco. He has no delusions, he recog­ nises his “madness”, he is clearly ori­ ented in time, place, his identity and his relationships. So what does his madness mean? Nabucco is insane in the sense that his reality and role have changed. He is being punished for his hubris, his blas­ phemy, in accordance with the motto of part 2, “And the lightning of Heav­ en shall fall on the godless.” Shortly

before he sings, Nabucco (enraged) “Tu menti! [...] O iniqua, prostrate al simulacro mio.” […] ( prendendola per un braccio) “Giù! Prostrati! Non son più re, son Dio!” Nabucco (enraged) “Fenena! You see before you your god! Grovel in the dust and pray!” [...] (He seizes her arm.) “Kneel before me! I am no longer a king, I am god!” Nabucco wants to be god to his daughter, it is not enough to be her fa­ ther. Fenena must pray to him, kneel before him. This is the specific blasphe­ my for which he is punished – superfi­ cially and as a theatrical symbol – with madness. Actually, it is the reverse, his megalomania is insane, the punish­ ment is not. In his madness, Nabucco achieves a changed state of awareness, seeing more clearly than before. Presenting madmen as seeing more clearly and more intelligent than sen­ sible individuals or themselves before their madness is a popular dramatic means to strip out the “normal mad­ ness” and show it to us. Shakespeare, who Verdi admired most, likes to use this trick. It is only in his madness that Na­ bucco changes from an unfeeling and power-hungry king to a father and loving individual. However, although still very egocentric, he wants Fenena’s sympathy, and is able to show feelings. “Oh, mia figlia! E tu pur anco non soc­ corri al debile fianco? [...] Ah, perché, perché sul ciglio una lagrima spuntò?” “Alas! “Oh my daughter! You do not help me in my weakness? Ah! Why has a teardrop fallen from my eye?“ Love for his daughter is more im­ portant to the reformed “insane” Na­ bucco than his crown. In a moving melody in the duet with Abigaille he begs her to spare Fenena, and is ready



to yield his throne to Abigaille. (“Deh, perdona, deh, perdona ad un padre che delira! Deh, la figlia mi ridona, non or­ barne il genitor!” “Ah, forgive, forgive a father who is delirious! Ah, give back my daughter, do not bereave a father!”) The second main figure in the opera is Abigaille, Nabucco’s presumed elder daughter, but in reality the daughter of a slave. It is an open question if she is an illegitimate daughter of Nabucco. Budden believes she is the daughter of a slave in the harem and one of Nabuc­ co’s wives. There is no evidence of this in the libretto. Abigaille is a Hebrew name and can be translated as “My fa­ ther rejoices” or “My father is joy”. In the opera she is by no means a reason for joy for her father, but a grave dan­ ger to his rule and his real daughter, Fenena. Abigaille originally wants to please her father, she identifies strong­ ly with Nabucco, falls in with his drive for power, adopts a masculine air, en­ ters with a sword in her hand. She is aware of her origin and tries to hide it, overcompensating for her inferiority complex. In addition, she is repeated­ ly deceived and mortified. First, she is not a princess. Then Ismaele rejects her love for him, her alleged sister be­ comes a rival, both in love for the He­ brew and for her father’s affection. As she is regarded as the first born, Na­ bucco should have made her his deputy when he went off to war. Here again, the younger sister is preferred. This hardens her feelings – previously she was sympathetic, she longed for love (“Piangeva all’altrui pianto, soffriva degli altri al duol; Ah! Chi del perduto incanto mi torna un giorno sol?” “I wept when others cried, I suffered with the pains of others, ah! Who will give me back a single day of

that lost enchantment!”) As a result of her disappointment in love, she gives herself over to revenge and the desire for power (“Se del cor nol può l’affetto, Pago l’odio almen sarà!” “If my heart’s affection is not rewarded, then at least my hate will be!”) Alberich has the same motivation in Richard Wagner’s Rheingold, after the Rhinemaidens have rejected him and he has forsworn love. Nabucco also shows that striving for power corrupts. In in-depth psychological terms we can see the two figures Abigaille and Fenena as two parts of the same young woman and daughter – one “evil” de­ structive and one “good” adjusted part of the personality. But even the “good” Fenena rebels against her father in her way, by changing her religion (for love of Ismaele as well). And she frees the slaves against her father’s will. Ida­ mante in Mozart’s Idomeneo behaves in a similar way, his first independent act is to set the prisoners (Trojans, in this case) free. Children have to rebel against a strong father figure in order to become independent and adult. The fact that one person is split between two different characters is a frequent phenomenon in the theatre, folk tales and art generally. This phe­ nomenon of division was described for the first time by Otto Rank in his essay The incest theme in literature and legend (1926). As Freud had already done in interpreting dreams, Rank noted the analogies and similar creative mech­ anisms in dream and literature, and juxtaposed consolidation with its op­ posite, the division in individuals. This allows contradictory features of the character or conflicting internal tendencies to be more easily shown. We will meet this device in other Verdi


N A B U C C O F R O M A P S Y C H O T H E R ­A P E U T I C A L P O I N T O F V I E W

operas as well. For example, we can also see the story of Nabucco, Abigaille and Fenena as the development of a family. The little girl dreams of herself as a princess and her father as omnipo­ tent and admirable and has to learn lat­ er that she isn’t a princess, and her fa­

ther isn’t God. The father in turn must learn to give up his position of omnip­ otence, accept that his daughter will go her own way, and will no longer adore him. What is striking is that the moth­ er is missing in this family. We will en­ counter this in several of Verdi’s operas.




THE WORK OF A YOUNG TALENT NABUCCO IN VIENNA ITALIAN SEASON AT THE KÄRNTNERTOR THEATRE Every year from April to June, Carlo Balochino and Bartolomeo Merelli, leaseholders of the Vienna Kärntnertor Theatre since 1836, offered their audi­ ences a separate subscription of Italian operas from April to June: works by a Rossini who had not composed an op­ era since 1829, a Bellini who had died in 1835, a Mercadante and a Pacini, but also Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Figaro were performed for the Viennese by first-class musicians. From 1842 to 1845, opera in the Hapsburg capital was inseparably linked to the leading active Italian composer of the day – Gaetano Donizetti – who as “court composer” had become the darling of Vienna. He proved to be interested in putting on not only his own works but also the operas of his compatriots. Hopes for the future of Italian opera had recently been pinned on Giuseppe Verdi. He had enjoyed success at La Scala Milan in 1842/43 with Nabucco and I lombardi alla Prima Crociata; and so, it made sense that the leaseholders of the Vienna opera house, who were also impresarios at La Scala, would want to stage this box-office attraction in Vienna. Donizetti too had heard Na-

bucco in Milan and went into raptures over the opera. On 28 March 1843 the journal Allgemeine Wiener Musik Zeitung an­ nounced: “Madame Tadolini, de Giuli from Milan and Messers Salvi, Roverre, Guasco, Derivis, Varese, and Verdi, the composer of Nabucco from the Italian opera, have already arrived in Vienna.” Donizetti had initially assumed that the prestigious opening of the Italian sea­ son would be reserved for Verdi’s work, but those responsible had other ideas. On 1 April 1843 Donizetti himself stood on the rostrum at the Vienna Opera to conduct the extremely suc­ cessful revival of his Linda di Chamounix which had premièred the previous season but now included changes made for Paris. This was the upbeat to a sen­ sational Donizetti Festival: a total of 43 works from the pen of the maestro from Bergamo were the main focus of the Italian season.1

PREMIÈRE PERFORMANCE The first new work of the season, await­ ed with great excitement, took place on 4 April: Verdi’s Nabucco, at the time still titled Nabucodonosor, and conduct­ ed by the composer. The scenery and



costumes were magnificent, all new and made under the direction of Carlo Brioschi. Two linchpins of the Milan world première were also on hand in Vienna. Singing the title role was Gior­ gio Ronconi, one of the leading Italian baritones of the day and a successful performer in many Donizetti premières (incl. Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo and Torquato Tasso 1833, Maria di Rudenz 1838 and Maria di Rohan 1843). In the role of Zaccaria was the highly regarded bass Prosper Dérivis (per­ former of the lead roles in the world premières of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Donizetti’s Les Martyrs and Linda di Chamounix, as well as Verdi’s I lombardi). Teresa de Giuli Borsi, who followed Giuseppina Strepponi as Abigaille in Milan, continued her success in the role in Vienna – she later created the female lead in Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano (Rome 1849). Francesca Salvini (who later rose to fame as the first performer of Traviata under the name Fanny Sal­ vini-Donarelli) as Fenena, Francesco Severi as Ismaele and the local per­ former Gustav Hölzel (25 years later Beckmesser in the world première of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) as the High Priest rounded out the cast of the lead roles. Verdi, who was surprised at the un­ familiar configuration of the orchestra (with the double basses in the centre section) 2, was received “cordially” by the audience, whose numbers were lower than expected.3 The critics re­ acted ambivalently, depending on the personal preference of the reviewer. Several reviewers expressed their admi­ ration for the young composer in writ­ ing: “Verdi has clearly studied well and displays a talent that is heard all too sel­

dom these days”, wrote Ferdinand von Seyfried in the Wanderer 4 for example. Seyfried also highlighted “that Ver­ di understands the importance of the chorus and gave it preferential treat­ ment.” August Schmidt, publisher of the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, expressed the opinion that following the reports from the Milan première ex­ pectations were too high, the opera was nothing more than “the usual... That is by no means to say that that Signor Verdi has blundered with this opera; on the contrary, it is the meritorious work of a young talent that is very encourag­ ing for the future.” 5 Julius Becher on the other hand, who aggressively opposed the Italians, wrote defiantly: “No Ger­ man would dare present such a trivial creation to an audience.”6 Naturally the critics were also look­ ing for “reminiscences” and heard strains of Rossini – and in particular Mosè (the similarity of the subject mat­ ter veritably suggested this compari­ son) and Semiramide. But Verdi also had other colleagues to thank in sev­ eral regards. “Verdi is an eclectic who draws his melodic inspiration at times from the works of Rossini and Bellini, at times from those of Mercadante and Donizetti. This is the reason why his ideas often inspire delight and displeas­ ure at one and the same time: the for­ mer, because you hear them, the latter because you recognise them. The performers were all favourably judged, with particular praise for Gior­ gio Ronconi, the “greatest Italian singer to come forth in recent years. What a brilliant portrayal of character, what masterly acting combined with the most perfect artistic rendition in vocal performance.”8 Audiences received the artist with great enthusiasm, an encore



had to be given of the sextet “Trem­ in’ gl’insani” in the Act 1 finale, and at the end of even that act the singers and composer were called out for cur­ tain calls several times; Act 2 met with the least approval. In Act 3 the clos­ ing section “Deh perdona” of the duet between Abigaille and Nabucco was repeated, while Prosper Dérivis’ rendi­ tion of Zaccaria’s aria was found to be impressive. Verdi and Dérivis had to give two curtain calls after Act 3. The chorus “Va, pensiero” which had proved so success­ ful in Milan was not mentioned by the reviewers and received little applause from the audience. The highlight of the opera was said to be a different choral section, namely “Immenso Jehova.” It was with this chorus that the first per­ formance in Vienna ended; Abigaille’s final scene was omitted – however in the complete piano score which Anton Diabelli published in 1843 this entrance is indeed included. Several reviews bemoaned the lack of a big tenor aria, a fact that shows how much people clung to convention. In general, it was noted that the Kärnt­ nertor Theatre was too cramped for the compact Verdi instrumentation, which had been conceived for the significantly larger space of La Scala Milan. This problem occurred in performances of all the big operas, for example the works of Meyerbeer, Halévy and lat­ er Wagner and could not be resolved until 1869 when the new Court Opera building was opened.

FIRST PERFORMANCE IN GERMAN Inclusion of Nabucodonosor in the rep­ ertoire in Vienna generated far less

enthusiasm than had been the case in Milan. Verdi conducted the second per­ formance on 5 April; in all there were seven performances of the work during the 1843 season, but there were no fur­ ther plans to perform the piece in Italian. However, on 22 January 1848 the opera was included (to the disapproval of several critics) in the German rep­ ertoire, again with the title Nabuco­ donosor. The translation was by Hein­ rich Proch, the sets and costumes by Brioschi were kept, the conductor was Wilhelm Reuling. Wilhelmine von Hasselt-Barth sang Abigail, Eduard Leithner sang the title role, Josef Drax­ ler sang Zaccaria, Louise Liebhart sang Fenena, Wilhelm Brandes was Ismael, Gustav Hölzel once again appeared as the High Priest. “Is there such a dearth of original German new music that we have to bor­ row from foreigners? If we are proud enough to appeal to individual taste in Vienna, why do we not commission our own works written specifically for Vienna?”10 Similar comments were to be found in several reviews. Eduard Hanslick wrote a review for the Wiener Zeitung in which he talked about a “by and large very successful per­ formance... The most competent per­ formances of the evening came from Ms v. Hasselt-Barth and Mr Draxler. The former excelled as Abigail with the exceptional fluidity of her voice, the latter (Zacharias) with the power­ ful, dignified delivery of the cantilenas. Mr Leithner presented some felicitous moments; however, his upper voice lacked the necessary fullness and power to be completely successful in the role as a whole. The costumes and scen­ ery were beautiful, the chorus and or­ chestra were outstanding.”11



Nabucco was performed six times in 1848, the last performances took place on 13 February and 15 February 1849 (with Josef Staudigl in the title role). Hanslick used these performances as an opportunity to give a scathing re­ view of the opera (and also Ernani). “These two operas by Verdi are the most tasteless and meaningless that new opera literature has produced.” 12 De­ spite these attacks by one critic, Ernani became a favourite with Viennese audi­ ences. Nabucco by contrast disappeared

from the repertoire at the Kärntnertor Theatre and was not added back in at either Court Opera or State Opera until 2001 (!). At the Volksoper the work was produced twice after the Second World War: once in 1857 under the baton of Argeo Quadri and again in 1992 (con­ ductor: Jan Latham-König, director: Christine Mielitz). Vienna’s leading opera house on the other hand did not attempt any of Ver­ di’s early works until 152 (!) years later when it mounted this production.

1 These were Linda di Chamounix (16 performances), Gemma di Vergy (6), the first per­ formance of Don Pasquale (8), Alina, regina di Golconda (3), the first performance of Maria di Rohan (7) and Lucrezia Borgia (3). In addition to these, other popular perfor­ mances were individual acts of various operas (on one occasion acts 1 and 2 of Linda were performed and Act 2 of Lucrezia, on another occasion act 2 of Linda and, for the baritone Varesi, act 3 of Torquato Tasso, coupled with ballet). The composer himself conducted the first performances of Don Pasquale and Maria di Rohan. In addition, besides Nabucco, performances were given of Rossini’s Barbiere (conduct­ ed by Otto Nicolai, 15 performances), Federico Ricci’s Corrado di Altamura (3), Matteo Salvi’s La Primadonna (2) and Bellini’s La sonnambula (2). 2 The composer remembered this years later in a letter to Francesco Florimo dated 27 March 1869; he realized that the Viennese orchestra configuration did have its benefits. 3 By contrast, Donizetti was “received with tremendous applause” (Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung dated 6 April 1843) 4 Wanderer, volume 31 1843, no. 132 5 Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung dated 6 April 1843 6 Sonntagsblätter, volume 2 1843, no. 15 – Otto Nicolai also wrote reviews for this journal. As we know, Nicolai had rejected the libretto for Nabucco, thereby clearing the path for Verdi to achieve his great triumph. 7 Wiener Zeitschrift 1843, No. 70 8 Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, a. O. 9 In 1844 Ernani, in 1845 I due Foscari and in 1846 I lombardi alla prima crociata were performed at the Kärntnertor Theatre. Unlike Nabucco, these works were performed again in the Italian seasons: Ernani in 1845 to 1847 (from 1849 to 1870 Ernani was sung alternately in German and Italian), Foscari in 1851, Lombardi in 1847, 1853 and 1865. 10 Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung dated 25 January 1848 (the name of the journal had been slightly modified in the meantime). 11 Wiener Zeitung dated 29 January 1848 12 Supplement to the morning edition of the Wiener Zeitung dated 3 April 1849


Following page: LUCA SALSI as NABUCCO




NABUCCO SEASON 2023/24 PREMIÈRE OF THE PRODUCTION 31 MAY 2001 Publisher WIENER STAATSOPER GMBH, Opernring 2, 1010 Wien Director DR. BOGDAN ROŠČIĆ Music Director PHILIPPE JORDAN Administrative Director DR. PETRA BOHUSLAV General Editors SERGIO MORABITO, ANDREAS LÁNG, OLIVER LÁNG based on the programme by Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz for the premiere in 2001 Design & concept EXEX Layout & typesetting MIWA MEUSBURGER Image concept MARTIN CONRADS, BERLIN (Cover) All performance fotos by MICHAEL PÖHN, AXEL ZEININGER Printed by PRINT ALLIANCE HAV PRODUKTIONS GMBH, BAD VÖSLAU TEXT REFERENCES – All texts were taken from the Nabucco-programme of the Vienna State Opera (premiere: 31 May 2001). IMAGE REFERENCES COVER Entrance to the southern palace of Nebuchadnezzar II. ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS Andrew Smith. Reproduction only with approval of Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Dramaturgy. Holders of rights who were unavailable regarding retrospect compensation are requested to make contact.

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