This is a commentary on the live radio broadcast of Verdi's Nabucco on April 10 from the Metropolitan Opera.
Nabucco is usually described as Giuseppe Verdi's first big operatic success, and while it has some strong and memorable moments, it is also pretty flimsy at points. Although it has been quite popular in Europe, this opera has not really been a part of the standard repertory in the United States. (Tellingly, although Nabucco received its American premiere in 1848, only six years after it was first performed in Milan, at the old Astor Place Opera House in New York, it was not performed at the Met until 1960.) The Met's matinee performance was excellent, especially the Met chorus, which is featured so prominently in this opera. The overture that begins it all is fun listening, for something that is almost ludicrously basic, by comparison with later pieces for orchestra in opera, which is not really fair. For the most part, the overture gives us a foretaste of music from the big choral scenes, which are the real highlights of this opera. The scene opens on one of those scenes, with the chorus in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, as the Babylonians attack (recounted in one form in the Old Testament, in 4 Kings 25; the other Biblical book related to the history of the Jews in Babylon is Daniel, written by a prophet during the Babylonian Captivity: see The Historical Nabucco, from the Met). The Met chorus has developed a reputation for accurate and beautiful sound, which was certainly on display here.
The logistics of mounting an opera with so many choral numbers were embarrassingly revealed, however, at the end of the second scene in Part 3, when the sound of the Met chorus shuffling offstage came across on the radio in disturbing clarity. It's a pity that Verdi could not have had a number for the Italian banda, which he was not able to banish from his operas until later in his career, play a rousing number at that point to cover the noise. Verdi did write some music in Nabucco for the banda, that often ragtag group of local band players who demanded to play on stage in operas in many Italian cities in the 19th century. (If you want to know what this group probably looked and sounded like, you can get a good idea from The Godfather , where a banda plays at the wedding of Michael Corleone in Sicily, and in The Godfather, Part II , in the funeral procession of Vito Andolini's father in one of the flashback sequences.) The much more talented Met form of the banda appeared as required in Nabucco in the third scene of Part 4, as Fenena and the other condemned Hebrews were brought in for punishment. At least Verdi tried to make it part of the action.
While the choral parts of Nabucco are certainly important, I should not give the impression that there are not demanding solo roles in this opera. In fact, Abigaille, a slave child who has been raised by Nebuchadnezzar as his own daughter, is one of the great roles for dramatic soprano in the Italian repertory. In the Met production, Andrea Gruber turns in a spectacular performance, at least from the sound that came over the radio. This was my first time hearing Ms. Gruber sing (she sang the same role at the Met last season), and if this performance is any indication, we may expect much excellent work from her. In her big scenes in Part 2 and Part 3, where Abigaille has a remarkable and lengthy duet with her adoptive father (especially in "Deh perdona"), Ms. Gruber's voice was gripping in its dramatic power. The role of Nabucco was handled with great pathos by the distinguished Leo Nucci, who has just turned 62. Incredibly, Nabucco in Part 3, the cruel oppressor rendered insane by God's curse, is one of the more sympathetic roles that Verdi created for baritone. The way that Mr. Nucci sang it, who could not have pity on this crazy old man, treated so cruelly by the slave girl he adopted? Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones also gave an excellent performance as Ismaele, the Israelite in love with Nabucco's birth daughter, Fenena. He and mezzo soprano Marina Domashenko, as Fenena, sang very well together in the ensemble "S'appressa gl'istanti," at the moment of awestruck horror at Nabucco's blasphemy at the end of Part 2.
Of course, the highlight of the opera is a famous choral piece in Part 3, scene 4, where the chorus of the Hebrews, working in slavery on the banks of the Euphrates in Babylon, sings "Va, pensiero" (Go, thought, on golden wings). As Verdi, in a probably dramatically exaggerated retelling (see the opening quote here), put it, when he first received the libretto, the book fell open to the the page with the words of this chorus on it, and he became obsessed with the story. As has been famously recounted many times, the citizens of Milan at the premiere at La Scala in 1842 (and at subsequent performances in other cities) heard in the lament of the enslaved Hebrews and their yearning for freedom the perfect historical echo of their own subjugation to the Austrians and the longing for a unified and free Italy. As a result, this chorus became a sort of fight song for the political movement toward Italian unification, the Risorgimento, and is even now in many ways the unofficial national anthem of Italy. I will never forget, during a visit to Rome, hearing my cab driver sing the entire chorus from memory when I asked him a question about it. Opera is still in the blood of the Italians. (For more information, see Verdi, Và pensiero, and the Risorgimento, from the Met.) A more recent and ignominious fate for this famous chorus was to be named Anthem of the International Freedom Movement by the Schiller Institute here in Washington, D.C. (founded by the wife of Lyndon LaRouche: yeah, that Lyndon LaRouche.)
Another famous and more poetic Babylonian passage from the Bible is one of the psalms (see the text below, compared with the text of the chorus). The first two verses of that psalm were set in an extraordinary motet by Giovanni da Palestrina, Super flumina Babylonis, which we usually sing at the National Shrine at some point during Lent. The story is particularly poignant for musicians, and I can certainly understand how the Israelites in captivity would hang up their instruments on the willows and refuse to sing for their oppressors. In a Talmudic commentary, I have also read that the Hebrews cut the fingers from their hands rather than play for the Babylonians. In Verdi's chorus, by contrast, the Hebrews seem to long to play and sing of Jerusalem, even asking their harps why they hang silently from the willows, and Verdi gives them a singable tune with a functional harmonic covering to do it. (Just as important to the psalm, but left out of both Palestrina's motet and Verdi's chorus, is the demand for vengeance, up to and including the horrible cry for infanticide in the ninth verse.) At least one member of the audience at this Saturday matinee appreciated the historical background of "Va, pensiero," yelling out in that moment between the final note and the first burst of long applause, in a strong New York accent (Brooklyn? the Bronx?), "Viva l'Italia!"
Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
Ove olezzano tepide e molli
L'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
Di Sïon le torri atterrate...
Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!
Oh membranza sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'ór dei fatidici vati
Perchè muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
Ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simìle di Solima ai fati
Traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
O t'ispiri il Signore un concento
Che ne infonda al patire virtù!
Go, thought, on golden wings,
Go, alight on the cliffs, on the hills,
Where are wafting, warm and gentle,
The sweet breezes of our native soil.
Greet the Jordan's bank,
The fallen towers of Zion....
Oh, my fatherland—so beautiful and so lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and fatal.
Harp of gold of the prophet bards,
Why do you hang silent from the willow?
Rekindle the memories in our breast
That speak to us of the time that was!
O harp, like Solomon to the fates,
Draw a sound of harsh lamentation
May the Lord inspire in you an accord
Which might infuse our suffering with virtue.
1 Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion:
2 On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.
3 For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs. And they that carried us away, said: Sing ye to us a hymn of the songs of Sion.
4 How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
6 Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember thee: If I make not Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem: Who say: Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, miserable: blessed shall he be who shall repay thee thy payment which thou hast paid us.
9 Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock.
You have one more chance to tune in to the Met broadcast, the fourth part of Wagner's Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung, on April 23. After that, for lack of funding, it will probably cease to exist.