Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, 1886, part, Rome, Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna
The opera is one of the key factors to understand the 19th century, the “long century” in which the modern world was shaped. A century in which aristocracy was replaced by the bourgeoisie, whose own identifying element was found in the opera. As Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco” teaches us, the musical structures of the past begin to be renewed and lose rigidity, towards achieving a total art form, characterised by extreme emotional engagement.
Verdi’s life can be summed up by the title of one of his operas, “La forza del destino” (“The Power of Fate” in English), which was a successful melodrama, but with a rather troubled realisation. In fact, Verdi’s fate was a destiny of greatness, based on talent and a tenacious character, which developed amidst the thousand difficulties and vicissitudes of a turbulent historical period, to say the least.
He was born in “Le Roncole”, a village near Busseto, Parma, on 10 October 1813, to a modest family: his father ran a tavern, while his mother worked in a spinning mill. His ambitious father was not indifferent to the boy’s obvious musical ability, and, above all, neither was the director of the local Philharmonic Society, Antonio Barezzi, who became his patron and father-in-law, since Verdi, after completing his studies, eventually married Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. The couple settled in Milan, the cultural epicentre of the time, but success did not come soon. Indeed, between 1838 and 1840 both his two young children and his wife died owing to diseases. The composer lost heart and thought of giving it all up. It was writer and adventurer Temistocle Solera who persuaded him to revert his decision by showing him his libretto of “Nabucco” (1842), which later became an enormous success.
The following years, which Verdi himself defined as the “years of prison”, were characterised by numerous commissions, strenuous work conditions, and frequent trips. The composer found some rest by buying a property in Sant’Agata, near Piacenza, which is still known as “Villa Verdi”. It was also during this period that he met soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, whom he married in 1859, after a long relationship, at the peak of a memorable decade in which he composed his masterpieces “Rigoletto” (1851), “Il Trovatore” (1853) and “La Traviata” (1853).
Later, his career was enriched by the monumental operas “Don Carlos” (1867) and “Aida” (1871), the extraordinary “Messa da Requiem” (1874), dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni, and his last opera, “Falstaff” (1893), a curious comedy based on the works of his beloved Shakespeare. After a reserved old age, dedicated above all to charity, Verdi died in Milan on 27 January 1901.
Nabucodonosor, score for voice and piano, 1842, Parma, Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani
“Nabucodonosor”, later commonly called “Nabucco”, is the opera that set off Verdi’s rise on the European opera scene. It was first performed at La Scala in Milan on 9 March 1842.
It is an opera in four acts that tells the story of how the Jews were exiled to Mesopotamia, seen in the light of the contrasting relationships between the protagonists- alongside Nabucco, King of Babylon, are his natural daughter Fenena, his adopted daughter Abigaille, as well as Ismaele, grandson of the King of the Jews, and the high priest of the Jews, Zaccaria. Even if lovers Fenena and Ismaele are a little weak, the same cannot be said about the two great leaders, Nabucco and Zaccaria, but especially, about terrible Abigaille. The warrior princess is characterised by a considerable vocal power, to stress her strength, ambition and determination. Without going too deep into the twisted events narrated, Nabucco’s final conversion allows the liberation of the Jews and at the same time marks the end of the tyranny of Abigaille, which had usurped her father.
From a musical point of view, the opera is still somewhat anchored in the structures that made Verdi’s illustrious predecessors- Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti- famous. There are, however, interesting elements of originality, for instance, the extensive use of the brasses, which were to become the symbolic instruments of late Romanticism. Moreover, the development of the action is innovative, fast, almost passionate, according to an epic outlook that finds an insuperable zenith in the famous refrain of “Va Pensiero”: the piece translates the lament of the Jews through an original mixture of registers and sounds, with sudden bursts of sonic violence. The main reference is Psalm 137, which is particularly dramatic and has a rather violent register. It is precisely the theme of violence that has inspired the inclusion of the “Va Pensiero” in two strong and visionary cinematographic works, namely “Inferno” (1980) by Dario Argento and “Bronson” (2008) by Nicolas Winding Refn. Beyond these quotations, there are many who have appropriated the piece over time, to make the most disparate and often inappropriate uses of it.
Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, View of Ancient Babylon, 1721, private collection
Considering the matter in strictly historical terms, we must go back to the time when Babylon was the centre of the world. Heir to the great Sumerian city-states of Eridu, Ur and Uruk, the city was probably founded by the Akkadians in 2,300 B.C., and became famous for the tall tower erected there, the historical veracity of which is still discussed. A first Babylonian empire was established around 1,800 B.C. by famous Hammurabi, known by the “Law of Talion”, while a second empire started after the Assyrian interlude and reached its peak with our Nabucco, Nebuchadnezzar II in full (634-562 B.C.). He was a sovereign of great culture, who built the great walls and the famous “hanging gardens”, but first and foremost he was a leader, committed to maintaining power in an area that had always been rather unstable.
The situation in the neighbouring land of Canaan, in particular, was very delicate. After Solomon’s death in 931 BC, the Jewish kingdom was divided into a northern section (the Kingdom of Israel) and a southern section (the Kingdom of Judah). The former became a Mesopotamian protectorate by the time of the Assyrians, while the latter, which was more prosperous and unified, lost its independence around 600 BC. A revolt then led Nebuchadnezzar II to besiege Jerusalem and deport some of the inhabitants to Babylon, including prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. About ten years later, in 587 BC, a new revolt led him to march on Jerusalem again and, this time, the city was completely destroyed, including the Temple. Then, there was a second deportation. It should be remembered, however, that only the urban population was deported, while the rural population remained in the countryside. Finally, in 538 BC, Persian king Cyrus II “the Great” conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
These facts are reflected in the biblical sources, where the deportation, foretold by prophet Jeremiah, was seen by the Jews as a just punishment for turning away from God’s word, especially in the time of the cruel king Manasseh. Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar II is interpreted as an instrument of redemption. The contact with Mesopotamian culture was extremely important for the development of the holy books of Judaism, most of which were written during this period.
Sebastiano de Albertis, The Artillery of the IIIrd Division attacking during the Battle of San Martino, 1887, Fondazione Cariplo Collection
Much has been said about the interpretation of “Nabucco” from the perspective of the Risorgimento, or perhaps too little. There is no doubt that “Va Pensiero”, for example, became a sort of patriotic anthem against the Austrian power in the years to follow.
There are, however, contrasting opinions: there are those who support a real manipulation of the opera, with a distortion of the original intentions of an idealistic and apolitical Verdi, who would speak in absolute terms of universal feelings and values; on the other hand, there are those who consider Verdi a fervent patriot from the very beginning, and for this reason they see “Nabucco” as a clear and intentional nationalistic metaphor.
The truth is probably something more complex, and to find it we need to understand the personality and the cultural context in which the composer worked.
Firstly, it must be said that Verdi was a romantic, and like all romantics he was obsessed with dreams and ideals, which clashed with reality, fuelling a strong, but ultimately blind, longing for rebellion. Then, after the unification of Italy, Verdi, as a true romantic, was again disappointed by the new course of events, showing his dissatisfaction with the rising unitary state. In truth, there is something that goes beyond Romanticism: before creating “Nabucco”, Verdi was a talented but little-known composer, with some small successes and a few failures behind him. Then came the turning point, thanks to a commission with an obvious patriotic bias, with themes that had never before been considered by the maestro. The resulting success opened the doors to the salons of Milan’s high society, especially that of Clara Maffei, the “femme fatale” of the time, known to be popularly frequented by hotheads and anti-Austrian intellectuals. It is no coincidence that “Nabucco” (1842) was followed by a tight sequence of operas based on the theme of rebellion, namely “I lombardi alla prima crociata” (1843), “Ernani” (1844), “Giovanna d’Arco” (1845), “Attila” (1846), “I masnadieri” (1847) and “La Battaglia di Legnano” (1849).
It is therefore undeniable that Verdi, beyond his political stand, became, willingly or not, the instrument of a real ideological “machine gun”, on which to base, even before arms, the insurrection. A revolt driven not so much by a desire for national unity, but by an aversion to Austria, an aristocratic and conservative stronghold that was more resented by the city’s indolent bourgeois classes than by the people. But that is another story.
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