In revolutionary 'Nabucco,' Verdi found his voice and so did the Italian people

April 18, 1993|By Stephen Wigler 'NABUCCO' Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler 'NABUCCO' Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

American performances of Verdi's operas will take a ste either forward or backward this week -- depending on how well Baltimore audiences can sing.

When conductor Joseph Rescigno and the Baltimore Opera Company orchestra and chorus finish "Va, pensiero," the famous third-act chorus of Verdi's "Nabucco," they will start it again, inviting the audience to sing along. (The BOC's program books will contain the words and music for the aria.)

As far as "Nabucco" is concerned, this is more than a gimmick. In Italy, where "Nabucco" was first performed in 1842, audiences have traditionally demanded and received an encore of "Va, pensiero" in which they frequently join.

"Nabucco" is one of the great composer's less-familiar works, and the BOC's production marks the first time it has been performed in the Baltimore-Washington area. But the young Verdi's third opera was his first masterpiece, and it is one of those rare works of music whose political import helped create a nation.

Like other Italian artists of his day, Verdi had to deal with censorship so pervasive that it made even indirect political commentary on the events of the day unthinkable. But it was all but impossible for an Italian audience of that time -- particularly in Milan, where the opera premiered -- not to identify with the chorus of Hebrew slaves who sing "Va, pensiero" and to identify their oppressors, the Babylonians, with the Austrians who occupied Milan and much of the rest of Northern Italy.

Verdi was the greatest artistic figure of the Risorgimento -- the 19th-century movement that resulted in Italy's revolt against foreign rule and its reunification as a single nation. The word means rebirth or revival. And as the Jews, one of the great peoples of classical antiquity, sang about their faded glory, Italians -- long divided into petty kingdoms, republics and provinces subject to Austrian, French or papal domination -- must have thought about the grandeur that was Rome.

In the 19th century, Italy was only a geographical expression. But its people, for the first time in centuries, were beginning to think of themselves as a single nation. In place of German, French, Latin or local dialects, modern Italian was increasingly spoken, and the different cultures of Naples, Milan and Rome were starting to become something that could be identified as "Italian." Before the century's end, the Italian states were united in a Kingdom of Italy with a central capital at Rome. "Va, pensiero" was -- and is -- the anthem of an entire people's awakening.

In 1840, when Verdi received the libretto for "Nabucco," he was an understandably depressed young man. Within the past 18 months, his two infant children and his young wife had died, and his second opera, "Un Giorno di Regno," had flopped. For five months, according to the composer's account, he did little but read trashy popular novels -- the equivalent, for a composer who loved Shakespeare as much as Verdi did, of lying in bed all day and watching television. But Bartolomeo Mirelli, the impresario who ran Milan's La Scala, tried to encourage him by giving him a libretto by Temistocle Solera on an Old Testament subject about Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian tyrant who carried the ancient Jews into captivity and then, chastised by God, released them. The popular German composer Otto Nicolai had been offered the libretto first, but rejected it as nothing but "rage, invective, bloodshed and murder."

Verdi took the libretto home, but ignored it. Then one day, Verdi recalled, "I threw the manuscript [of "Nabucco"] on the table almost violently. The roll of paper opened out, and without knowing quite how I found myself staring at the page in front of me and my eyes fell on the line, 'Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorati' (Fly, thought, on wings of gold). . . . I was profoundly struck by the words, especially as they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, which I enjoyed reading. I read one passage, then two more. I forced myself to tie up the manuscript and go to bed. But I couldn't sleep. I got up and read the libretto not once but two or three times so that by morning you could say that I knew the whole libretto by heart."

This account, written more than 35 years after the event, may be a little fanciful. It's just as likely that the evil villain Abigaille, who became the first of Verdi's unforgettable soprano roles, may have been the spur that awakened the composer in Verdi. But the patriot in him must have surely realized that here was "a drama," in the words of the great Verdi scholar Julian Budden, "not of people but of a people."

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