Few will ever overlook Verdi’s “Nabucco.” While the venerable composer undoubtedly surpassed his third opera, “Nabucco,” based on the biblical story, put the composer on the map in a way in a number of ways. It was his first breakthrough, coming at a time when the then 28-year-old was still reeling from the death of his entire nuclear family and even considering quitting his chosen career path. He was also reeling from the failure of his second opera, “Un Giorno di Regno,” which to this point is a mere footnote in his iconic oeuvre.
But “Nabucco,” home to “Va pensiero,” one of the most famous choral excerpts in all of opera is notable for bringing religion into Verdi’s dramatic vocabulary. His first two works hinted at the themes of political power and interpersonal relationships that would come to preoccupy the composer for over 40 professional years. But “Nabucco” was the first work to bring the question of religion to the forefront, a theme that he would repeatedly study and develop throughout his 28 operas.
Verdi’s Relationship to Religion & God
Verdi, of course, was a well-known non-believer, his relationship to religion a rather contentious one despite his early years working in a church as an organist. His second wife Giuseppina Strepponi famously noted how the composer would mock her credence. ““I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying ‘you’re all crazy,’ and unfortunately, he says it with good faith,” she stated according to a passage from Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s biography on the composer.
Yet despite his anti-clerical stance, it is impossible to ignore the fact that glorious music for religious settings proliferates his work, making one wonder a bit about the composer’s spiritual life. He composed the wondrous Requiem (though it is far from a liturgical work in the vein of other prominent requiems) and he also tackled a few sacred pieces. His operas are littered with religious passages as well and a look at some of the conclusions of some of his later works showcase a man with spiritual depth. Moreover, as opera expert Fred Plotkin notes, most of Verdi’s heroes and heroines are deeply pious Christians or Catholics. One usually would not expect a man with such an antagonistic stance toward religion and its beliefs to identify so wondrously with such characters, and yet he does so in a way that few other operatic composers have or ever will.
Nonetheless, despite some seeing a profound spirituality in his work, it is hard to ignore that his operas are littered with his disdain for the religious.
Miracles or Lack Thereof in Verdi’s Operas
“Nabucco” represents one of three major instances in any Verdi opera where a true divine miracle happens, the others being “Giovanna d’Arco” and “I Lombardi.” Notice that these operas belong to Verdi’s early period. In the case of “Nabucco”, the title character blasphemes and is punished. But his call for forgiveness is rewarded as he gets a chance at redemption. The prayers of the Jewish people are also likewise respected.
This is never seen elsewhere in the composer’s output. We repeatedly see images of characters praying to a deity, mostly in vain. Luisa Miller and Desdemona have a prayer before meeting their untimely demises. In “Un Ballo in Maschera” Amelia prays for protection before eventually being compromised morally in front of her husband. Violetta implores to God to have pity on her soul moments before her death in “La Traviata” while Aida implores “Numi Pieta” in an opera where she never manages any pity and winds buried alive by a theocracy.
Time and again Verdi’s devout characters pray to a God that increasingly ignores them.
Nowhere does this theme of indifference come to greater fruition than in “La Forza Del Destino.” In fact one might intuit that Verdi has gone one step further – God, embodied by fate, is at the core of human suffering. This is an opera that features more scenes in a church setting than any other Verdi opera. Leonora hides in a church seeking protection. The entire religious organization swears to protect her by hiding her in one of the most uplifting prayers in all Verdi opera’s (“La Vergine degli angeli“). Alvaro runs to that very same church seeking protection by serving God. But neither of them is able to escape the horrors of the world around them; if anything seeking God’s protection leads them to even more painful destinies. Leonora is murdered at the hands of her brother while Alvaro winds up a murderer.
“Forza” presents even greater ambiguity on Verdi’s perspective toward God when one considers the biggest revision the composer made between 1862 and 1869. “Forza,” while condemning God’s benevolence also represents the composer’s shift in perspective. The earliest version of the opera, written in 1862, has Alvaro curse humankind and ignore the Padre Guardiano’s pleas for spiritual absolution as he commits suicide. When Verdi ultimately opted for revising the work seven years later, he added an ending in which Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano pray for Leonora’s soul. Verdi’s original ending was dismissed by many as too violent and publishers asked that he “popularize” the opera; the composer labored for years over the ending, but his eventual conclusion is a far cry emotionally from where he began. Musically it a rather soothing ending, a stark contrast not only to the violence of the original, but also the pain that permeates the entire work.
Here is a look at the original ending from 1862 that premiered in St. Petersburg:
And now listen at the revised version from 1869:
Verdi’s revised ending to Macbeth, written in 1865, has the townspeople rejoice, even invoking God’s aid in their victory while the ending for Aida, despite its heavily anti-clerical content, ends with the lovers hopeful of a life after death.
A Benevolent or Malevolent God?
“Don Carlo” sees Verdi take the antagonist nature of God one step further as the opera explores the base corruption of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. God’s identity as a benevolent creator or the most vile being seems to be at the core of the opera. On one hand, we see the monks and Elisabetta calling out to God repeatedly; these characters also happen to be the most passive of all the characters in the opera. On the other hand, you see other characters “acting” in the name of God carrying out the most heinous crimes. There you have King Filippo, the Grand Inquisitor and all the people celebrating the horrifying Auto-da-Fe at the end of Act 3. As the Grand Inquisitor subverts the most important of all Christian events, Jesus’s sacrifice for humanity, and uses it as justification for Filippo’s desire to “sacrifice” his son to save his empire, one cannot help but ask how God, if he is in fact so good, would allow this kind of corrupt humanity to retain so much power.
The ending of the opera is the ultimate example of a Deus Ex Machina, but this miraculous apparition summarizes the overall ambivalence of the work toward an all-powerful creator. In sum, Carlo V’s sudden appearance resolves nothing in the opera by neither identifying a victory or defeat or even major change for the opera’s main characters; Verdi’s seeming stance on God’s identity in this work meets the same fate.
When we look back from “Don Carlo” and “Forza” toward the religious idealism that is featured in “Nabucco,” the very first work in which he took on spirituality in any of his works, we can identify intriguing thematic evolution. While Verdi never truly delves into the philosophical aspects of spirituality and religion the way his contemporary Richard Wagner does, his works manage some unique insights and contradictions that, perhaps, expressed his own ambiguous sentiments on that very subject.