Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar)
  • Giuseppe Verdi. Dramma lirico in four parts. 1842.
  • Libretto by Temistocle Solera, after the ballet Nabuccodonosor by Antonio Cortesi and the play Nabuchodonosorby Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu.
  • First performance at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 9th March 1842.
CHARACTERS
Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), King of Babylon baritone
Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem tenor
Zaccaria, High Priest of the Hebrews bass
Abigaille, slave, presumed the first daughter of Nebuchadnezzar soprano
Fenena, daughter of Nebuchadnezzar soprano
High Priest of Baal bass
Abdallo, an old officer of Nebuchadnezzar tenor
Anna, sister of Zaccaria soprano

The first part of the opera, Jerusalem, is set in the Temple of Solomon, where the Israelites are encouraged by the High Priest to resist the armies of Babylon. Fenena, daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, had helped Ismaele to escape from Babylon and is now with him, but Abigaille, also in love with him, leads in a band of Assyrians, disguised as Israelites, capturing the Temple, which Nebuchadnezzar orders to be destroyed. The second part, The Ungodly One, opens in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar where Abigaille thirsts for revenge on Ismaele. The High Priest of Baal urges her to seize power in Babylon as regent, since Fenena has set the Israelites free. Elsewhere in the palace Zaccaria prays, with Ismaele shunned by the Levites, until it is clear that he has converted Fenena. She is now proclaimed queen, after rumours of her father’s death. Abigaille intervenes, acclaimed as queen, but interrupted by the return of Nebuchadnezzar to seize the crown and declare himself both king and god. At this blasphemy he is struck down by a thunderbolt and loses his wits, leaving Abigaille to triumph. The third part, The Prophecy, in the hanging gardens of Babylon, finds Abigaille inducing her father to sign Fenena’s death warrant. By the banks of the Euphrates the Hebrews lament their exile, but Zaccaria prophesies the destruction of Babylon. The fourth part, The Broken Idol, finds Nebuchadnezzar distracted, but anxious to save Fenena, who is being taken to execution. He prays to the God of Israel and his sanity and powers return, enabling him to rescue Fenena, and, converted, to resume his reign. Abigaille takes poison, begging for forgiveness as she dies.

Nabucco was Verdi’s first great success, marking the real start of his career, after which commission after commission came his way. In addition to the strong impression given in its music, the choice of subject itself fitted well enough the political circumstances of contemporary Italy, largely under foreign domination. The overture, composed principally of material from the opera itself, suggests the firmness of purpose of the oppressed. This is strengthened by the opening chorus of Levites, in Gli arredi festivi (The festive vessels now fall), answered by the virgins and other groups, establishing the importance of the chorus in the whole opera. Zaccaria’s exhortation follows, designed for a rich deep bass voice, Sperate, o figli (Hope, my sons), and the following D’Egitto là sui lidi (From Egypt’s shores). The role of Abigaille is a challenging one, and she makes her first entrance as she captures the Temple, sees Fenena and Ismaele together and pours scorn on them in Prode guerrier! d’amore conosci tu sol l’armi? (Bold warrior! Is it only the weapons of love that you know?). The best-known chorus ever written by Verdi must be Va, pensiero (Fly, thought, on golden wings), the chorus of Hebrews lamenting their exile by the waters of Babylon.