Premiering on March 9, 1842 at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, “Nabucco” is the opera to which Verdi attributes the beginning of his career as a composer. Although he had composed works prior to this, such as “Oberto” and “Un giorno di regno” it wasn’t until “Nabucco” where he would receive the overwhelming success that would follow throughout his career and even past his own lifetime.
The story draws from the Biblical account of the Jews and their struggles under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. While it is staged less frequently than some of Verdi’s other works, “Nabucco” remains a staple in the operatic canon to this day.
Short Plot Summary
The opera begins in the Temple of Solomon; the people are restless as the Babylonian army draws nearer to the city of Jerusalem. Zaccaria, the High Priest, urges the Israelites to keep faith in God to see them through the ordeal. The hostage of the Israelites, Fenena, may be able to give them a means of negotiating peace as she is the daughter of the Babylonian king, Nabucco. Fenena is given to the watch of Ismaele, who is nephew to the King of Jerusalem. When Ismaele and Fenena are alone, they reminisce about a similar situation in the past, where Ismaele was the prisoner of the Babylonians and Fenena aided his escape, the encounter leading to the two falling in love. Nabucco’s elder daughter, Abigaille, infiltrates the temple with a number of Babylonian soldiers in disguise. Due to her own love for Ismaele, she issue an ultimatum when she finds them together: If Ismaele swears to love her, she will that ensure Nabucco spare the Israelites; if he refuses, she will brand Fenena as a traitor. Ismaele refuses altogether, earning Abigaille’s wrath. Nabucco arrives at the temple with his soldiers, though he is ready to destroy the temple a stalemate occurs when Zaccaria threatens to kill Fenena. Ismaele, however, manages to save Fenena, indirectly allowing Nabucco’s men to destroy the temple. For this, Zaccaria and his people declare Ismaele to be a traitor. Back in Babylon, Nabucco appoints Fenena as regent while he resumes his campaign against the Israelites. In his absence, Abigaille discovers a paper whichconfirms she is not the daughter of Nabucco, but the child of slaves. The High Priest of Bel enters suddenly, and reports that Fenena has released the captive Israelites. He wishes for Abigaille to take power in Babylon and so he spreads the rumor that Nabucco was slain in combat; Abigaille resolves to seize the throne of her adopted father.
When the rumor reaches the court, Abigaille and the High Priest enter the court and order Fenena to relinquish the crown. Nabucco suddenly returns, forcing his way through the crowd to take back the crown where he declares himself to be not only Babylon’s rightful king, but also God Himself. When Zaccaria denounces him for blasphemy, Nabucco orders the execution of the Israelites. Fenena reveals to her father that she has converted to Judaism, and so she will share in their doom. The enraged Nabucco again declares his divinity until a sudden clap of thunder renders him insane; when the crown falls, Abigaille seizes it and asserts her authority as the new queen of Babylon. As queen, she intends to execute the Israelites, leading to Nabucco denouncing her right to the throne. He searches for the document that proves this, but Abigaille destroys it before his eyes. Though all seems bleak for the Israelites, Zaccaria implores them once more to have faith in God, for He will destroy Babylon utterly. When Nabucco sees Fenena being led off for her execution, he prays to God that he will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and covert to Judaism if He will forgive him. His prayers are answered and his madness is lifted, and so Nabucco hurries to save his daughter’s life. When he arrives at the gardens where the executions will take place, he proclaims his conversion and denounces Bel. Miraculously, the idol of Bel topples over and shatters. All are awed by Nabucco’s divine favor, and Zaccaria asserts that he is truly the servant of God as Nabucco frees the Israelites. Cast from her father’s throne, Abigaille poisons herself, begging for Fenena’s forgiveness and God’s mercy before she dies.
“Va, pensiero,” the Hebrew chorus halfway through the work remains its most famed passage, often encored in performances. Besides that, Abigaile’s double arias and the subsequent grand duet with the baritone are undeniably some of Verdi’s most riveting moments dramatically. In the former, he manages to show the work’s antagonist as a broken woman while contrasting it with her fiery demeanor. And in the ensuing duet he shows us her power and cruelty.
Read More on “Nabucco”
Watch and Listen
Here is a performance from the Arena di Verona featuring Renato Bruson and Ghena Dimitrova in the lead roles.