Giuseppe Verdi’s Opera Signature in Nabucco

Verdi mastered the art of opera perhaps better than any other composer has in history. Nabucco was actually his third opera and one that experts regard as his stepping stone to world popularity. The success of this third opera elevated and permanently solidified his reputation as a master composer. Before that, he had already composed Luisa Miller and Ernani, with a relatively good reception.

The premiere performance of the opera was in Teatro alla Scala, Milan on 9th March, 1842. At this performance, the opera carried its original name of Nabucodonosor, before it was translated to English, Nebuchadnezzar, in subsequent revision. Actually, the first time the English name was used was during the performance at San Giacomo Theatre of Corfu on September 1844. Most of the numbers in the opera lacked the encores that have been added in modern performances. Especially renown is the number ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ and ‘Fly, Thought, On Golden Wings’, today made even more beautiful by additional encores.

Teatro alla Scala - Milan
Teatro alla Scala – Milan

Such flexible compositions are notable with most of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas. Another key feature of Nabucco, which is repeatedly used by many of Verdi’s opera, is the soprano role with a downfall vocal of several singers. This is notable in the role of Abigaille in Nabucco. It was Anita Cerquetti and Elena Souliotis who sang this role very poorly during some performances before Maria Callas took it for three consecutive performances. But the real exponents of the role in the period 1941 to 2005 have been both Jadranka Jovanovic and Ghena Dimitrova.

The name Nabucco is short form for Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king. Giuseppe Verdi used Temistocle Solera’s Italian libretto to compose a four-act opera basing it on a Biblical account of the king’s dynasty. The opera’s story line traces the documented plight of Jews after they were assaulted by King Nebuchadnezzar and consequently exiled to Babylon from their beloved homeland. He also based the opera on a creative play written by Francis Cornu and Anicet-Bourgeois.

The Italian opera was actually composed in 1841 and revised in 1842, just before the premiere performance of 9th March 1842 in Milan, Italy. The entire setting of the opera is in both Jerusalem and Babylon during the 6th Century BC. The lyric drama has four distinct parts in its original and revised version. Verdi composed the opera with a the following set of characters; Nabucco, the King of Babylon in baritone, Abigaille, the former slave and the purported daughter of Nabucco in soprano, Fenena, the daughter of Nabucco also in soprano, Ismaele, the Nephew of the King of Jerusalem in tenor, Zaccaria, the High Priest of Jerusalem in bass and the High Priest of Babylon also in bass.

Being a Verdi’s opera, Nabucco is not very famous in modern times. It is not performed as frequently as his other operas. Nevertheless, it is still a respected opera around the world, having been roosted on the Metropolitan Opera since its first performance there in 1960.
The opera is also a regular at the Arena di Verona opera house, up to today, having been performed there in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008. Besides these two, Nabucco is a regular opera in La Scala, Opera Australia, Vienna Sate Opera, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice, Teatro Municipale di Piacenza, San Francisco Opera, Tokyo New National Theatre, Teatro Regio di Parma, Sarasota Opera, London’s Royal Opera House, and Austria’s St. Margarethen Opera Festival among many other opera companies in the world.

The most attractive thing about the opera is its signature of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. Verdi is quoted to have said of Nabucco, “This is opera remains the one with which my artistic career in opera really begins. And although I have had very many difficulties to fight against before it was born and nurtured, it is now certain that Nabucco was conceived under a lucky star”. It is therefore not surprising that the opera became an instant hit, gaining phenomenal success in its premiere performances across the world. It totally outdid any of the operas by Donizetti and Giovanni Puccini, during that time. The public simply went high with enthusiasm and support as the fiercest of critics stamped their earnest approval.

Giuseppe Verdi wrote twenty-nine operas including the revisions to some operas. By the time he retired from the theatre, he had dominated the headlines as a grandmaster of opera. Among those operas, the most cerebrated were, I Lombardi Alla Prima Crociata, Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Luisa Miller, Otello, Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Ernani, Falstaff, La forza del destino, Don Carlos and Aida. It was Nabucco however, that as he says, cemented his success in opera. The lessons he learnt during its composition and performance, reverberate in all the twenty six operas written after Nabucco.