Shaken by the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi almost gave up on opera altogether. Still, he had a contract from La Scala for three more works that needed to be fulfilled. One story relates that he fell upon Temostocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco (or Nabucadonosor,as it was originally titled) with delight and set to work immediately in a frenzy of inspiration. Another relates that he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to his piano. Whatever the truth, the work premiered at La Scala in 1842 and was an immediate, colossal success. Wagner would spend much of the next twenty years mired in debt and political and personal scandal; but Verdi's reputation was now all but assured.
There's a number of interesting things about Nabucco, not least that it's one of surprisingly few operas based on a story from the Bible (what might we give to be able to hear Wagner's aborted Jesus von Nazareth?). It's easy enough now in a more secular age, but in Verdi's time depicting biblical characters on stage wasn't really considered "proper".
It's most famous, of course, for Va, pensiero (or "the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") which has almost become a second Italian national anthem. But first and foremost it will always remind me of the chorus of Scottish Opera who sang it during the curtain call at a performance of La Boheme, in protest against threatened job cuts by a penny-pinching Scottish Executive. It had been a good Boheme, but it was this moment that properly reduced us to tears.
The Plot (in brief) : During the Babylonian Captivity, Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar declares himself a god and is struck down by a thunderbolt; whilst Abigaille (who may, or may not be his daughter) plots to usurp his throne. Nabucco converts to Judaism just in time, and tells the Israelites they can all go home. Abigaille poisons herself and dies, but not before begging for forgiveness.
The Recording : that most cerebral of
conductors, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and the Deutsche Oper of Berlin; with Piero Cappuccilli, ,Placido Domingo, Ghena Dimitrova, and Lucia Popp in the minor role of Anna.
I can't quite bring myself to love Nabucco. It's conventionally written, but there's plenty of good bits and the music carries the drama well enough. I think it's the role of Abigaille : with its extremely high tessitura it's a killer of a role to sing which, unfortunately, means it can be a bit of a killer to listen to as well. After a while I started to find it grating instead of thrilling. Perhaps I just needed a different recording, but there's no time for that now. On to 1843 and I Lombardi.