GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901):


Overture: With the exception of the chorale-like opening, the overture contains themes from the opera. The main recurring theme is from the "Maledetto" chorus. The overture also contains a pastoral version of "Va pensiero" and several more martial variations.

Act I

Jerusalem in 587 B.C, inside the Temple of Solomon.

The Babylonian army has reached Jerusalem and stands at the gates of Solomon's Temple. Although the Israelites are distressed about their fate, the prophet Zaccaria encourages them by telling them that he has taken as a hostage Fenena, daughter of Nabucco, King of Babylon. He claims that God will help. The people follow Zaccaria into battle to the sound of two numbers linked together. The opening chorus, "Gli arredi festivi" is large scale and echoes the emotions of three groups, the terrified populace, praying Levites, and supplicant virgins who sound too happy given the likelihood of their rape. Zaccaria's response is in cavatina/cabaletta form, with two arias. The slow cavatina, "D'Egitto la sui lidi", has an unusual structure where the opening of the second stanza is sustained by unison chorus. The faster cabaletta, "Come note al sol fulgente," contains an even earlier choral interruption, this time in the lyric form. The overall structure moves from full chorus to parts to solo, back to parts, then solo/choral combination, and conclusion in full chorus. The individual voice is defined within the group politic.

As the stage clears, Fenena and Ismaele are left alone. They fell in love when Ismaele was imprisoned in Babylon, and Fenena has helped her beloved escape to Israel. Abigaille interrupts their privacy, breaking into the temple at the head of a band of Babylonian warriors disguised as Hebrews. Her entry has been compared to the way in which Sherman took Georgia during the Civil War. She, too, is in love with Ismaele, and she taunts him with her victory. Abigaille's accompanied recitative introduces her as both a character and as a vocalist who requires enormous skill – i.e. power in the lower register, agility above the staff, and a strong dramatic presence. The terzetto (musical composition for three voices) "Io t'amava" is somewhat out of character with the rest of the score in that it is lyrical, relaxed, and graced with vocal ornamentation.

The end of Act I begins with the chorus, "Lo vedeste", as the Israelites panic in defeat. Nabucco arrives on horseback to the tune of a triumphal march that is reminiscent of Mozart. Zaccaria threatens to kill Fenena if the King profanes the temple. The final tableau, beginning with "Tremin gl'insani", highlights the conflicting attitudes of the principal characters. Ismaele fears for Fenena and disarms Zaccaria. In a furious stretta, Nabucco orders the destruction of the temple.

Act II: The Impious One

Scene 1. The royal apartments in Babylon

Act II opens with Abigaille front and center. She has just read a parchment belonging to Nabucco and discovered that she is not his real daughter, but the daughter of slaves whom Nabucco adopted. She is extremely jealous of Fenena, Nabucco's real daughter, whom he has appointed as regent while he is on military campaign. As Abigaille begins to sing a full-scale double aria in grand bel canto form, her thoughts turn to Ismaele, whom she loves. In the slow "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno", she begins an ornamental aria where each two-bar phrase has a vocal flourish that builds toward the end. The High Priest of Baal arrives and announces that Fenena has freed the Israelites. Rumor has it that Nabucco has died in battle. Encouraged by a war-like chorus urging her to take the throne and massacre the Hebrews, Abigaille decides to assume power herself. The structure of her cabaletta, "Salgo gia del trono aurato" repeats the forceful tone of the earlier recitative and again joins ornamental gestures to rigorously controlled periodic structure.

Scene 2. A room in the palace

The scene begins with Zaccaria in calm voice singing "Vieni o Levita" to the accompaniment of six cellos. God has chosen him to accomplish a miracle and convert Fenena. As he leaves, Ismaele enters through another door. The Levites shun him, singing "Il maledetto". A grand finale follows, as Abigaille enters with the High Priest of Baal and declares herself Queen. Shortly before she crowns herself, Nabucco, who has not died as rumored, reappears and snatches the crown for himself. The finale. "S'appressan gl'istanti" features each of the principals singing the same melody as their interconnectivity increases in complexity. Nabucco turns to face the crowd, declaring himself not only King but also God. As a thunderbolt strikes him down for his blasphemy, the crowd responds with shock. Rather than concluding with a fast movement, Solera and Verdi inserted a mad scene in which Nabucco fluctuates between fast and slow tempos before fainting. As the curtain falls, Abigaille cries out triumphantly.


Act III: The Prophecy

Scene 1: The hanging gardens of Babylon

The opening chorus is an effort to inject local color. A duet between Abigaille and Nabucco follows, and Nabucco is duped into signing Fenena's death sentence. The number is one of the opera's best and it is one of the many father-daughter duets for which Verdi is famous. Others appear in I due Foscari, Giovanna d'Arco, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, La traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Aroldo, La forza del destino, and Aida. The difference between those duets and the one here is that in Nabucco there's no love lost between father and daughter. The duet opens with a recitative and moves into a fast-paced dialogue ("Donna, chi sei?") in which repeated orchestral motifs supply the continuity. We move to a movement of lyrical repose where the characters further develop their opposing attitudes ("Oh di qual'onta aggravasi"). In the third part, trumpets from the outside world announce the death sentence of the Hebrews. In a final cabaletta, Abigaille and Nabucco restate their positions. He begs for mercy and Abigaille claims that he is her prisoner.

Scene 2: The banks of the Euphrates

The closing scene of Act III is called the "Coro e Profezia." The Hebrews sigh for their lost homeland. Zaccaria presents a vision of the future in which Babylon will be reduced to ruins. The choral number "Va pensiero" is the most famous music in the entire opera. The melody is simple, and the unvaried phrase pattern creates a sense of nostalgia that later in the century became a symbol of Italian national aspirations. Structurally, the musical phrase is stated twice. Following a quiet bridge and a forte (loud) and piano (soft) break, there's a restatement of the original idea. Rossini described this number as an aria for multiple voices. There's no harmony until the break, and the parting of the voices suggests an entire nation singing together. The orchestration is not obtrusive; rather it is background for the melody that seems to move from a small whirlpool to a raging river. Zaccaria dismisses the chorus' attitude singing the two-part minor-major "Del futuro nel buio." The aria has a two-octave range, suggesting that the power is shifting from Abigaille and the Babylonians to Zaccaria and the Hebrews.

Act IV: The Broken Idol

Scene 1. The royal apartments

Nabucco appears alone on stage. The orchestral prelude represents his distraction and combines recollections of past themes. Nabucco hears a funeral march and sees his daughter Fenena on her way to her execution. He is powerless to help her. He prays to the God of Israel as a last resort. His sanity returns and he gathers a band of followers to save his daughter. This scene is structured as a double aria. Nabucco's prayer, "Dio di Giuda" is the first part, and the cabaletta "Cadran, cadranno i perfidi" follows. Verdi's skill in allowing the baritone voice to pour out a beautiful tone over a long legato line is in evidence here. When Nabucco sings, the audience may feel that all is right with the world or will be soon.

Scene 2. The altar of Baal in the hanging gardens of Babylon

Fenena and the Israelites are led toward their deaths against a background of the funeral march heard in the previous scene. Fenena sings "Oh dischiuso e il firmament" and Nabucco rushes in to save her. Announcing his conversion, Nabucco is restored as King. The statue of Baal falls by itself, and Nabucco orders the Hebrews to return to their native land to rebuild their temple to the one true God. Two soldiers bring in a bedraggled Abigaille. Having taken poison, she collapses and dies. All join in "Immenso Jeovha", a hymn to their new God. The hymn is grandiose, and in most 19th century performances, it marked the end of the opera. The score, however, has a more restrained ending where the dying Abigaille enters to ask forgiveness to the accompaniment of solo cello and English horn. She sings "Su me..morente".

Highlights of the Opera

  • Verdi's first opera, Oberto, was very successful. Shortly after its premiere, Verdi and the impresario at La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, drew up a contract for the composer to write three more operas. Verdi's next opera, Un giorno di regno, was a colossal failure. Personally, Verdi was at a low point in his life, having just lost his wife and children. Although he was ready to abandon his calling and give up on his professional career, Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, persuaded him to take on Temistocle Solera's libretto of Nabucco, which the Prussian composer Otto Nicolai had already turned down.
  • Solera, the librettist, was a character in his own right. As a boy he had done a stint with a traveling circus. He later served as an intimate advisor to Queen Isabella of Spain and as a personal courier for Napoleon III to the Khedive of Egypt. His multifaceted personality and variety of interests extended to the theater as well.
  • The original name of the opera was Nabucodonosor. The story derives primarily from the Book of Jeremiah in the Bible. Although Nabucco is the only biblical character in the opera, the prophet Zaccaria, who actually comes from another book of the Bible, fits in well. There were two sources for Solera's libretto, a French play performed in 1836 and a ballet performed at La Scala two years later.  There is little documentation of the genesis of the opera. Both Verdi and Solera were in the same city, making work easy and eliminating the need for ongoing written communication. Furthermore, unlike librettists with whom Verdi later worked, Solera was very experienced and didn't need much guidance from Verdi.
  • Solera took liberties with historical facts. After King Solomon's death, the United Kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, fell to the Assyrians in 712 B.C. Judah, the southern kingdom that also included the city of Jerusalem, held out until Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured it in 587 B.C. When Judah fell, Solomon's Temple was destroyed and the most important people taken to Babylon. Solera sometimes refers to the Babylonians as Assyrians, and he has the Babylonians worshipping Baal, who was the chief god of the Philistines, not the Babylonians.
  • Although Solera was influenced by a French play and ballet, Verdi was influenced by the Italian composer Rossini. That composer's revised Mose in Egitto was first heard in Naples and then retranslated into Italian and performed successfully in Milan during the 1830s. There are many parallels between the two operas, including the structure of the first act and the choice of voice parts for the principal characters.
  • Nabucco also has many similarities with Verdi's later opera Aida. In both works, a conquered people is threatened with death (by the High Priest of Baal in Nabucco and by Ramfis and his priests in Aida). Both operas have a love triangle and politically powerful princesses who are spurned by the men that they love. At this point, however, the plots of the two operas diverge, and the endings are very different. In Nabucco, Fenena has converted to Judaism and she and Ismaele are free to marry. Abigaille begs forgiveness and commits suicide. In Aida, the opera ends with the tragic deaths of both Aida and Ramfis, who has betrayed his country on her behalf. The crucial dramatic difference is that in Nabucco we care more about the fate of the Hebrew people than about the individuals; in Aida, the focus is on the individuals.
  • The importance of the chorus in Nabucco is clear throughout the opera. The chorus is heard in 11 of the 13 individual numbers. When Verdi wrote the overture after he had completed the remainder of the opera, he made the music of the choruses the principal themes. The most beautiful and memorable music in the entire opera is the Hebrews' lament about their Babylonian captivity ("Va pensiero"). At Verdi's funeral, Arturo Toscanini conducted the Hebrews' chorus to a crowd of thousands of mourners.Although "Va pensiero" has come to stand for the risorgimento in Italian history, recent scholarship has called into question Verdi's role in the political movement.
  • After multiple delays, Nabucco premiered at La Scala in March 1842. Among the original cast members were Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi's future mistress and later his wife. She was in poor voice, however, and her final scene was cut after two performances. In spite of this adjustment, the opera was a grand success. It was revived for the fall 1842 La Scala season and ran for 57 performances. Verdi made small changes then as well as for later performances in Venice and Brussels.
  • The success of Nabucco brought Verdi to prominence. Although the opera has an uneven score, lapses into banality, and has some unsteady experiments that Verdi didn't repeat in later operas, it demonstrates the essential ingredients of what we know as Verdi's style. These are the new and dynamic use of the chorus, great rhythmic vitality, and extraordinary dramatic pacing (Roger Parker). Although there is no important tenor role, the roles of Nabucco and Zaccaria are great opportunities for baritone and bass voices. The role of Abigaille is extremely difficult to sing and is one of the reasons that the opera is performed less frequently than some of Verdi's other and later works.

About this Website

The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.

Questions and Additional Information

Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or margiesatinsky@icloud.com.