Captivating in Babylon

Verdi’s first operatic masterpiece, Nabucco (originally Nabucodonosor) is well served by this DVD of a performance from the Teatro Regio di Parma, part of the admirable edition of the complete Verdi operas “Tutto Verdi” to mark the great musical dramatist’s bicentenary next year.

A lot of the credit must go to the young conductor Michele Mariotti, who leads a superb musical performance from the first-rate orchestra and chorus, with an excellent cast of singers. From the splendid account of the famous overture to the final bars, Mariotti finds all the vigor and energy, the lyrical inspiration and the powerful emotion that make the music of Nabucco so special.  

The Nabucco libretto, written by Temistocle Solera after Bible stories and a play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois, was not intended for Verdi but for Otto Nicolai, best remembered today for his opera Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, but Nicolai refused to set the libretto as the manager of La Scala, Merelli, wanted him to do, describing it as nothing but “rage, invective, bloodshed and murder.”

Verdi had resolved to abandon his career as a composer after the failure of his second opera,Un Giorno di Regno, at La Scala in 1840. The composer was devastated emotionally not only by the failure of his opera with the public, but the death of his beloved wife of viral encephalitis at the age of 26 the same year. Their two children, a boy and a girl, had died while Verdi was working on his first opera, Oberto.

Merelli however insisted on a meeting with Verdi and thrust the libretto of Nabucco into his overcoat pocket. As Verdi told the story years later,when he got home, “I threw the manuscript on to 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 this line ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’ which of course is the opening of the famous Chorus of Hebrew Slaves.

“With this opera my artistic career may be said to have begun” added Verdi, and also with this opera began his association with Italian longings for unity and independence, the Milanese audience at the wildly successful premiere in 1842 identifying with the oppressed Jews in Babylonian captivity.

Whether La Scala management, Solera or Verdi had this intention of comparing the Austrian empire which then possessed that part of Italy with Babylon and the Italians with the Jews is uncertain but it added to the success of the opera and its composer. Creating the killer role of the antiheroine Abigaille was Giuseppina Strepponi, at the time Merelli’s mistress, later Verdi’s live-in lover and eventual second wife.

Verdi had learnt quickly how to utilize all the resources of Italy’s leading opera house, writing magnificent choruses for this opera, wonderful orchestral effects and an overture often played on its own in concerts.

One of the things I particularly love about this opera is the music for the stage band, used for the Babylonian march and Fenena’s funeral march in the last act. You cannot hear the acoustic difference between the stage band and the orchestra in the pit very clearly on a DVD, however.

This production by Daniele Abbado with set and costume designs by Luigi Perego is simple and effective for the most part. The set consists of a monumental stone wall, which rotates into various positions and sometimes opens up to reveal arches or steps.

The opening chorus of the Hebrews, splendidly performed, is sung by the choristers in modern dress, the women in plain black dresses with no make up, many with headscarves, and the men wearing skull caps and prayer shawls. This is very effective and quite powerful, but then the principals make their various entrances and they are all in full operatic Babylonian period attire.

Juxtaposed against the modern and naturalistic looking chorus, this makes the get ups of the solo singers look rather ridiculous and fake, as if they are wearing Halloween costumes they have hired for a party. The tin crowns, false whiskers and stage make up seem cheap and silly against the background of modern Jewish people.

The character of Nabucco starts off in the usual “Babylonian king” attire, but by the time of the duet in Act Three when he has gone mad, he is garbed in a simple white shirt and black trousers, in my opinion the modern dress is actually more powerful.

The supporting cast is very good. Riccardo Zanellato as the prophet Zaccaria inspiring hope in his oppressed people is a powerful bass, a handsome and slim young tenor, Bruno Ribeiro, makes a good Ismaele and mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri sings her lyrical passages as Fenena very well. She and Ribeiro actually do look like a young couple in love.

Dimitra Theodossiou does this fiendishly difficult part of Abigaille very well, and the audience clearly loves her. She looks rather like the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White, which is not inappropriate. She has both the high notes (including a couple that are not in the score, to exciting effect), and the low, but omits the marked trills in the cabaletta to her big scene in Act Two. She can also sing softly, essential for authentic Verdi style. If all the sounds she makes are not exactly beautiful, that is not inappropriate for this role either.

Nabucco is the authoritative Leo Nucci, full of arrogance at the beginning, then really looking like a confused old man in the Act Three duet with Abigaille when he has gone mad. The prayer in Act Four “Dio di Giuda” is beautifully sung, and the following cabaletta wonderfully precise. His voice is still a wondrous instrument.

Chorus and orchestra are terrific, sound and picture very good.

The audience goes berserk at the curtain calls with many cries of “Viva Verdi”, flowers thrown onto the stage and some audience members literally screaming and shrieking their approbation. I am glad that the excellent conductor gets the loudest cheers of all.