Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco, was not merely a success, it was an explosion. Its combination of almost ferocious vitality and lyrical beauty was not only entirely new to opera, but was also the herald of the rest of Verdi’s career. Verdi’s mastery of drama, melody, and psychological penetration is what sets him above every other composer of opera. The insight into the soul in Nabucco comes from the chorus, which as we’ll come to below, overshadows the protagonists; a unique occurrence in Verdi’s operas.
Nabucco was first performed at La Scala on March 9, 1842. It was a sensation. Only eight performances were given because the season was at its end. The new season started on August 13, 1842; fifty-seven performances were then given of the opera by
the end of the year. Nabucco still holds the record at La Scala for the most performances given in a single year.
The Met didn’t get around to Nabucco until 1960 when the opera opened the 1960-61 season. Cornell MacNeil and Leonie Rysanek sang the principal roles. Over that season Nabucco was performed 14 times. It then disappeared from the Met’s repertory until 2001. I attended one of these 14 performances and was surprised that the opera vanished from New York. Since its return 12 years ago it has received 43 performances. This resurgence is consistent with the statement made in the introductory material on the DVD that Nabucco ranks fourth in frequency of performance among Verdi’s operas and 18th among all operas. This comeback is likely due to at least two causes. With the exception of Abigaille the opera is relatively easy to cast. Of course, interest in Verdi continued to grow as the 200th anniversary of his birth (2013) neared hard on the heels of the 100th anniversary (2001) of his death.
The Teatro Regio’s production uses simple but effective sets. The costumes were a little unusual. The chorus wore garb typical of the 1930s complete with yarmulkes and prayer shawls for the chorus even when they weren’t playing the Hebrews of the Babylonian Captivity. The principals wore stock theatrical biblical clothes. The only exception was Nabucco after he lost his reason whereupon he lost his costume. From then on he was dressed like the chorus. None of this got in the way of a very effective staging that was well recorded by video director Tiziano Mancini.
The title role was sung by veteran Verdi baritone Leo Nucci who was 67 when this recording was made. Time has been remarkably kind to him. He still has the goods for Verdi. His singing was powerful and authoritative. He easily commanded the stage. The Parma audience notorious for venting its disapproval of inadequate performances rewarded him with ovations during and after the show.
Dimitra Theodossiou’s Abigaille was more problematic. Her forte high notes were often strained and wobbly. This was particularly true in the opera’s first part. She seemed to gain strength as the performance went on. Her soft singing was quite good. ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ was lovely showing beauty of tone and controlled pianissimi.
The fanatical High Priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria, was sung by bass Riccardo Zanellato. He has a large and well modulated voice and was very effective as the unyielding priest, the first of Verdi’s many unpleasant clerics. The prominent roles for baritone and bass in Nabucco were written because La Scala had Giorgio Ronconi (baritone) and Prosper Derivis (bass) available. Why Giuseppina Strepponi (eventually Verdi’d second wife) was cast in the killer role of Abigaille is a little less certain. Her relationship with Verdi had not yet begun. She was the mistress of La Scala’s manager Bartolomeo Merelli. She was highly admired during the 1830s and may have been up to her part’s demands at the time of Nabucco’s premiere; but we can’t be sure.
Unlike almost all of Verdi’s other operas, the young lovers in Nabucco, Fenena and Ismaele don’t have a lot to do. Anna Maria Chiuri and Bruno Ribeiro did as much with their parts as could be expected. The remaining small parts were all well casted.
This leaves the chorus which in this work is as important as any of the principals. Listen to the finale of part 1 (the acts are called parts in Nabucco). This is the first of Verdi’s great concertati. The action (or rather stasis) involves Nabucco’s appearance in the temple of the Hebrews. Zaccaria threatens to Kill Fenena but is disarmed by Ismaele. The slow section features Nabucco alone followed by the rest of the principals. The stretta starts after a short bit of dialogue. The chorus of Hebrew vents its anger at Ismaele’s treachery in freeing Nabucco’s daughter while the soloists each expresses his own emotions. This type of great ensemble is a regular feature of Verdi’s work from here on. This one’s energy level is without peer. The listener is virtually flung against the walls. Nabucco part 1 finale Parma. This finale signals the emergence of a master. Listen to the stretta twice in a row and you’ll invade North Korea.
Then, of course, there is ‘Va Pensiero’ which has achieved an almost super-artistic status. Conductor Michele Mariotti takes the chorus at a slower and quieter piece than usual. The effect is very beautiful and deserves the cry of “Viva Verdi” which a member of the audience shouts at its conclusion. Va pensiero Parma
For comparison, below is a video of the Met’s 2001 production of Nabucco – it’s been taken down since I wrote this review. ‘Va Pensiero’ was encored. This was the first encore at the Met in almost a century. James Levine conducted. The larger Met chorus under his direction makes a much bigger sound, as does the orchestra, and takes a faster tempo. Both interpretations are valid.
Verdi said that Nabucco marked the start of his career and that he never lacked for commissions thereafter. Verdi’s craft continued to gain in skill until it became prodigious. But for sheer inspiration he never exceeded Nabucco.