Verdi, Nabucco and the People: A Chorus of Approval

Article by Dominic McHugh

Where would Verdi have been without Nabucco? It’s a flippant question, perhaps, inasmuch as the technical brilliance of his later masterpieces such as Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff easily eclipses some of Nabucco’s rather more perfunctory music.  But as a cultural icon, surely there is no more familiar or important piece of music in Verdi’s entire output than that memorable centrepiece of Nabucco, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.  This is the chorus that Verdi famously claimed (whether hyperbolically or not) was his inspiration to start writing operas again after the failure of his early comedy and second stage work, Un giorno di regno; it was the piece of music that catapulted Verdi to becoming a symbol of the unification of Italy (the Risorgimento); and, perhaps most tellingly, it was the piece of music which was sung by onlookers as his funeral procession made its way through the streets of Milan.  Nabucco, then, was more than a passing hit of 1842: it followed Verdi to the end of his life and in the eyes of many became the unofficial second ‘national anthem’ of Italy.

Exactly why the chorus appealed to the people on such a personal level is not difficult to understand; indeed it can be encapsulated within a single sentence of the libretto.  The Hebrews stand in chains on the banks of the Euphrates and join in a collective act of poignant remembrance to their lost homeland.  ‘Oh, mia patria sì bella e perduta!’ they sing – ‘Oh, my country so lovely and lost!’.  This was the ideal message to appeal to the many peoples of the various parts of Italy who strove for a collective national identity; they had longed for the unification of the country since the time of Napoleon and would continue to fight for it through the serious revolutions of 1848 until stability was finally reached in 1870.  Although it would be bending the facts to suggest that Nabucco was written as an allegory for the political events surrounding Verdi’s times – the composer always placed theatrical effect and technical strength first – there is no doubt of his connection between the heartfelt expression of a people in mourning for their nation both on and off the stage.  The composer would pick up the same theme for several of his later operas.  For instance, ‘O Signore del tetto natio’ from I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843) and the Chorus of the Scottish Refugees in Macbeth (1847, rewritten in 1865) presented similar scenarios of people in exile longing for their homeland, while La battaglia di Legnano (1849), written amidst the turmoil of the 1848 Italian revolts, was deliberately and almost completely composed as a piece of pro-fatherland and pro-independence propaganda.  Indeed, when Verdi considered revising the music of La battaglia di Legnano to a new libretto in 1854, he specifically asked the proposed new librettist, Leone Bardare, to ‘retain all the enthusiasm for fatherland and freedom’; clearly, he considered the music to have been inspired by the national cause, a theme which had first engaged him as an artist in Nabucco.

The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves is an indication of something else, too.  It has often been observed, quite correctly, that the main protagonist in Nabucco is not Zaccaria or Abigaille, or even Nabucco himself, but the people.  The chorus appears in ten of the opera’s thirteen numbers; they appear in the opening and closing scenes of each of the four parts.  And rather than merely providing passive support to the solo singers during big concerted scenes, the chorus actually has something to say about the situations in which it appears.  In the opening scene, the people are divided into three groups – Hebrews, Levites and Hebrew virgins – each of which has a distinct part to play in the exposition of the plot.  While the chorus as a whole sings of the Hebrews’ plight against King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonians, the scene is considerably enhanced by the vivid interaction between separate groups as the Levites (basses) instruct the virgins (sopranos and mezzos) to pray to the Lord ‘who is pleased by the fervent prayer of innocent lips’.  Their prayer then becomes an essential underlying component to Zaccaria’s cavatina (opening aria); one might even argue that the chorus upstages what would traditionally be a solo showcase number.  At the finale of the first act, the chorus is again divided into discrete groups of Hebrew civilians (men and women), Hebrew soldiers (tenors) and Levite warriors (basses), with the effect that the distinct experiences of each group are communicated to the audience – we particularly feel the anguish of the helpless citizens in contrast to the desperation of the defeated soldiers.  To these groups are added the Babylonian warriors who enter the temple in disguise and take it over.  The people are both fighting and being fought over, and even when the confrontation between Nabucco and Zaccaria has taken place, we are in no doubt of who is most important here.  Similarly, the chorus of Soothsayers in Abigaille’s Act Two aria actively incites her to grasp the throne; the chorus of Levites in the centre of the same act vigorously condemns Ismaele of its own accord, rather than following the lead of a main character in doing so; the chorus is once more split into groups for the second act finale, giving especial character to their sentiments; and then there’s that crucial scene at the end of Part Three when the plight of the Hebrew slaves dominates the entire proceedings.  This, then, is the chorus’s opera, and it is both a challenge and a blessing to the ensemble of every opera company that takes it on.

Bearing this in mind, it’s strange to think that Nabucco almost didn’t happen for Verdi.  Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of La Scala and one of Verdi’s earliest supporters, originally offered Temisocle Solera’s libretto to Otto Nicolai, the Prussian composer most famous for his final opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor.  But Nicolai turned it down, dismissing it by saying, ‘continual raging, blood-letting, cursing, physical violence, and murder are no suitable subject for me’.  Ironically, when the curtain went up on Verdi’s setting on 9 March 1842 these were precisely the sort of characteristics which made the opera so compelling.

The composer was at his lowest ebb when Merelli approached him with the libretto.  Un giorno di regno had flopped after just two performances at La Scala in 1840 and during its composition both his children, Virginia and Icilio, and his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, all died.  Legend has it that after this sequence of events, Verdi vowed to put down his pen and never write another note of music; in fact, the composer was notorious (though hardly unique amongst artists) for idealising his life story to fit his own purpose.  As various scholars have shown, two different accounts of his actions in the period 1840-2 given to Michele Lessona (1869) and Giulio Ricordi (1879) differ quite markedly in the details of how he came to write the opera.  His claim that he had decided to write no more music after the opening of Un giorno di regno is belied by the fact that he wrote new numbers for specific revivals of his first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, in late 1840 (Milan) and early 1841 (Genoa).  Equally, the two accounts differ on when composition on Nabucco began (either five months after he was given the libretto or immediately afterwards), which part of the text inspired Verdi to write the opera (either the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves or Abigaille’s death scene) and even the circumstances in which Verdi was persuaded to set the libretto to music (did Merelli thrust the libretto into his pocket and tell him to go home and compose or did Verdi throw it in a corner after he was first given it and only later come across it again by accident?).  Yet these questions hardly matter; all we need to know is that Verdi overcame a time of personal struggle and, having been given Solera’s action-packed libretto after Nicolai had turned it down, went on to write one of his most compelling operas.

The surprise for many audience members attending Opera Holland Park’s hotly anticipated new production will be just how gripping, memorable and affecting the opera is beyond the familiar Hebrew Slaves’ chorus.  The piece is focused on certain characters and situations.  There is a Romeo and Juliet type of impossible romance between Ismaele (an Israelite) and Fenena (Nabucco’s daughter), but Verdi minimises the portrayal of their love in favour of the effect it has on the central conflict of the opera; he even cut a conventional love duet that Solera wanted to furnish them with, preferring to write a harmonically-intricate prayer for Zaccaria.  Abigaille is one of Verdi’s most vivid characters, a villainess who is thwarted at the last minute and commits suicide in a breathtakingly scored closing scene; the part was first performed by Giuseppina Strepponi, who later became first Verdi’s lover and eventually his second wife.  The central encounter between Nabucco and Abigaille in Part Three is amongst the most gripping duets in Verdi’s output; it may not be quite so radical or psychologically complex as the Violetta-Giorgio Germont duet from Act Two of La traviata but it foregrounds the horror of Abigaille’s manipulation of the delirious Nabucco with excellent clarity.  Very little of the music is mundane – Verdi really pulled out the stops to give life to the drama.

When Nabucco opened on 9 March 1842, it was an overwhelming success.  Verdi became the talk of the town; he made the acquaintance of several members of the aristocracy and in spite of his shyness was propelled to the centre of society.  Within a year the opera had been performed more than seventy times at La Scala and it soon spread throughout the country, as well as to Lisbon and Vienna, where Donizetti conducted a performance in 1843.  In Julian Budden’s words, ‘Nabucco is the expression of a new personality in Italian music, as opera-goers all over Italy were quick to recognise’.  And, as his coffin was led through the streets of Milan after his death in 1901, nearly 300,000 mourners who lined the streets instinctively burst into the song with which he was most associated: ‘Va, pensiero’ – a chorus of approval from the people to the composer who reached out to them more than any other.

Dominic McHugh is researching a PhD in historical musicology at King’s College London and is the editor of the classical music review website