Nabucco and Verdi (Satis Shroff)
Ah, who hasn’t heard Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco song ‘The Choir of the Prisoners?’ It means ‘Fly, thoughts.’ This song became the within a short time the musical banner of the Risorgimento, and has remained to this day Italy’s secret national hymn. The text is by Temistocle Solera and had its premier in Mainland in 1842. The opera is set in Jerusalem and Babylon of the 6th century and has four acts.
Jerusalem: The Jews flee to the temple of Jerusalem. Nabucco, the King of Babylon, is persecuting them. The high-priest Zacharias believes that God will help him. Among the Jews who have sought shelter is also Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter. She had freed Ismael, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem, and came to Jerusalem with him because she loves him. But in Jerusalem she’s regarded as kidnapped by the Jews.
Soon the enemies, who are led by Abigail who has become the ruler of Babylon, attacks them. It might be mentioned that Abigail is also in love with Ismael. She tells him that he can save himself and his folk when he declares that he loves her. Ismael refuses.
Since Ismael owes his life to Fenena, he frees her from the clutches of Zaccarias. The Hebrews curse him for this deed. Fenena returns to her father.
The Jews become prisoners and are brought to Babylon.
L’empio: the Dastardly: In Babylon Abigail joins forces with the high-priest of Baal when she reads a document stating that she’s the daughter of a slave, and as a result has no right to the throne. Fenena is the rightful Queen. Abigail and the high-priest decide to spread a lie, namely that Nabucco has died in battle.
Fenena has become a Jew in order to marry Ismael. Zaccarias prays to God that he should help them in their imprisonment. The Levites accuse Ismael that he’s a traitor.
When the news of Nabucco’s death spreads, there is chaos and fear everywhere. Abigail comes and proclaims the crown belongs to her. Suddenly, Nabucco appears and ridicules the Gods of Babylon and despises the Jewish God. He commands all to go to their knees and pray to him because he is no longer king, but God.
As if were the wrath of Heaven, a thunderbolt strikes him and he collapses and becomes mad shortly after that. This is Abigail’s hour and she triumphs becomes the Queen. Femena is thrown into prison.
The Prophesy: Queen Abigail decides to sentence Fenena and all the captive Jews to death.
Nabucco, though psychic deranged, manages to realise what’s happening in the palace and wants to prevent the death of his daughter Fenena.
Abigail forces Nabucco to sign the death sentence, and imprisons him.
L’idolo infranto(the Broken Idols): In his desperate situation Nabucco prays to Jehova, the God of the Jews, and soon he’s relieved of his madness. The doors of the torture chamber open. Nabucco goes to the temple, with his loyal subjects, where Fenena and the prisoners are waiting for their execution.
Zaccaria declares Fenena is to die a martyr’s death. She sends a last prayer to Heaven. Nabucco comes to her rescue: he says he believes in the God of the Jews and gives everyone their freedom. Moreover, he says the temple in Jerusalem should be re-built. The idols of Baal collapse and Abigail, who has been deadly wounded by the falling temple-debris pleads for mercy.
Nabucco discharges all Hebrew prisoners. Ismael and Fenena are united at last. Zaccarias and the Hebrews praise the power of Jehovah and follow Nabucco.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) who went from Busseto to Mailand had some success as a music-composer with ‘Oberto’ in 1839 but it was his third opera ‘Nabucco’ in 1842 which finally established him as, beside Richard Wagner, as one of the most prominent opera-composers of his time. Verdi’s engagement for the Risorgimento, which took place at the coronation of Vittorio Emanuel in 1861, made him a symbol-figure of united Italy. He became world famous and was honoured everywhere as he journey to Europe’s capitals.
Nevertheless, he did not forget his home in Sant’Agata because he was proud to be ‘a farmer from Parma,’ which he often emphasised. Verdi wrote more than 20 opera-scores between Nabucco (1842) and Rigoletto (1851) in which the love of freedom and fight against tyranny became the main themes. Then came the middle phase in which he composed ‘Troubadour’ (1853) and ‘Don Carlos’ (1867) and ‘Aida’ (1871). The final operas were ‘Otello’ (1887) and Falstaff (1893) which enhanced Verdi’s zenith as a composer of operas.
When you think about Verdi’s Nabucco, you can’t help thinking about Jerusalem today with its crucial role as a place for cultural, religious, political and military skirmishes. It has become a stage for wars between atheism and religious beliefs, between Christians, Jews and Islamic fundamentalists. A city closely associated with prophets, patriarchs, Abraham, David, Jesus and Mohammad. This was the birthplace of Abraham’s religions, the city of the Bible, but also of Jews, early Christians, the Muslim conquerors, the knights of the Crusades and of course evangelists.
Back to Nabucco: Under these circumstances whom should we believe? The tyrannical Nabucco or the religious, converted Nabucco? Verdi’s Nabucco is actually the ambivalent Babylonian King Nebukadnezar II dating back to the 7th and 6th century BC. That was when the AssyrianKingdom fell, and as a result the Babylonians could plunder the Kingdom of Juda and bring gold treasures from Jerusalem to Babylon. Three years later, Nebukadnezar decided to siege Jurasalem and destroy the temple, take the king as prisoner and bring a great number of Hebrews as prisoners to Babylon. This was the ‘Great Imprisonment’ which was ended 47 years later. It was the Persian Kings who waged war against Babylon and fought for the cause of the Jews and the re-construction of Jerusalem.
The story has a parallel in the middle of the 19th century, when Italy set out to become a united country after 300 years of rule under the yoke of France, Spain and Austria. In Verdi’s opera Nabucco becomes the leader of a folk in fetters and who leads them to freedom, for he is the one who gives them hope. He has two daughters: Fenena and Abigail. Fenena personifies altruism and love. Abigail is power-hungry and egoistical.
The opera evokes a dysfunctional family-relationship where there’s a wish for harmony, love which remain unattainable and break in the hard rocks of reality. A family-therapy situation in which lies and intrigue dominate in the household of the Babylonian King Nabucco.