OPERA - ESSAYS - NABUCCO
Lavish applause followed the extended Part II duet between Gino Bechi as the Babylonian king, Nabucco, and Maria Callas as his reputed daughter, Abigaille, during a performance of Nabucco in Naples on 20 December 1949. Then the orchestra of Teatro San Carlo began a bridging passage of forte chords and rippling phrases before the off-stage chorus commenced “Va, pensiero”, the lament of the Hebrew slaves. As they trudged into view, their singing proceeded for three-and-a-half minutes before uproar broke out. Cries of “Basta! Basta!” [“Enough! Enough!]. The protest lasted twenty-five seconds, settled down only to erupt like a Vesuvius for another minute at the completion of the chorus.
What had happened? Had Zionist guerrillas occupied the stage in protest against disruption to their ships’ proceeding through Naples to the recently proclaimed state of Israel? Or had an anarchist thrown a bomb into the stalls as at Barcelona’s open house in 1893? Nothing less than dynamite is likely to produce a comparable storm out of an Australian audience. No, it was neither – it was just that the Neapolitans hadn’t liked the singing.
A managerial voice intervened with the offer of a second attempt by the chorus who applied an urgency and grace absent from their previous effort. The singing continued to its close without interruption until the audience’s response turned rapturous, yet still punctuated by objections from those who believed that “Va, pensiero” must never be less than perfect.
The recording, remastered from radio broadcast tapes, is too creaky to decide the quality of the choral work, yet one cannot help wondering whether non-musical motivations brought the audience to this zenith of outrage? Of course, the quality of the singing was significant and would have led to catcalls even during a sloppy rendition of the ball scene in La traviata.
But “Va, pensiero” is not just another operatic chorus. From its premiere in 1842, when it was encored, it has been a political matter – the national song for an emergent Italy. Nabucco gained a record fifty-seven repeats at La Scala in its first year for, as Julian Budden put it in his three-volume survey, The Operas of Verdi: “With Nabucco an oppressed national had found its voice”. The 100,000 people who followed Verdi’s second funeral through Milan in 1901 spontaneously broke into “Va, pensiero”.
Whenever opera is accused of elitism I retreat behind Verdi as its first line of defence. Enthusiasm for his operas among Italians across 150 shows how distinctions between high art and popular culture need not be as unbridgeable as they been made by the transformation of both the hieratic and the demotic into commodities. Verdi was so much in tune with his audiences that he had to protect his melodies from popularity prior to their premieres, for example, by secreting the score for the “La donna e mobile” aria in Rigoletto until the last minute. On opening nights, crowds would follow him home can course through the streets coursing the new songs he had given back to them.
Popular support for Nabucco among audiences was matched by a democratisation of the action on stage. The storyline for Nabucco had been derived from a French play of 1836 before being simplified for the ballet in Milan two years later. Verdi’s librettist enlarged the role of the chorus, an emphasis fortified by the composer. In Nabucco, the chorus is the driving force in the musical, dramatic and political senses. The opera is not divided into Acts but into four tableaux-like parts. Any danger of stasis is overcome through interventions from the chorus as much as through confrontations between individuals. “Va, pensiero” is the culmination for much of the other musical materials in Nabucco, whether for soloists or ensembles.
This significance of the chorus paralleled advocacy by the republican Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72) of popular sovereignty which recognised that the people, not kings or priests, were the source of power and legitimacy. The radicalism of this stance is clearer when contrasted against the views of nationalists such as Cavour who feared the people as the mob.
Part I, “Jerusalem”, contains one of the longest choruses in the Italian repertoire as the Hebrews pray for deliverance. Their high priest offers encouragement before the chorus interrupts to assert their belief in redemption, taking over the role of prophecy. Their subsequent retreat is accompanies by another chorus. “Lo vedeste”, in which the chorus divides into Levites, virgins and soldiers. Part Two, “L’Impio”, has less work for the chorus who nonetheless reinforces the declarations of their priests and commander.
Massed voices reassert their independence at he start of Part III. “The Prophecy”, before Nabucco and Abigaille commence their argument over which of them will rule. Their power to deicde such matters is countered by the rising strains of “Va, pensiero”, which Rossini recognised as an aria for an ensemble. Though that chorus begins as a lamentation, its sadness rises through the melody until its swinging gait leads the listener to sense a romise of victory.
Then, in Part IV, “The Broken Idol”, the chorus criss-crosses Nabucco’s path back to sanity. The opera moves to its conclusion through an unaccompanied chorus, “Immenso Jehova”, before declaring that Abigaille is dead.
To display the power of the chorus to sway events, Verdi had to set its collective effect against equally determined principals, primarily in Nabucco and Abigaille. Just as Verdi earned the title of “Maestro del core” for his enhancement of the chorus, so he redeemed the bass voice from the comic to the serious. The opposing high priests are both bases so that their declamations are a match for the vocal power of their massed followers.
The German composer Otto Nicolai, who had turned down the libretto of Nabucco, dismissed Verdi’s triumph as nothing more than a representation of “Rage, invective, bloodshed and murder”. True, those elements encourage moments of banality but such lapses are drowned in the dynamics, and so are less distressing than comparable patches in later and more reflective works.
On this occasion, Verdi sought characterisation through compositional means. The king’s psychosis is revealed at the close of Part II where he declares “I am god” before the thunder claps and the crown is struck from this head, leaving him a jibbering idiot while the music expresses both his dementia and his glimpsing of reality as he begs for human assistance. Sanity and madness had been common contraries in opera but Verdi cast them against each other within a confirmed compass. During the orchestral interlude at the commencement of Part IV, he recapitulated musical themes – not as he might cobble together for a last-minute ballet or overture – but instead as a means to replicate the king’s fractured memory.
Verdi’s treatment of mental disorder is the feature of Nabucco that is most remote from the conventional wisdom of the late twentieth century when we expect madness to be explained in terms either of chemical imbalances or childhood trauma. Wagner’s orchestration prefigured Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, just as his mythic plots presented a gem field for Jungian analysts. By contrast, Verdi remained closer to the pagan notion that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Hence, his music is more convincing when representing the effects of lunacy than at summoning its causes. In contrast to Nabucco’s madness, Abigaille’s ambition twists hr into a devil, bad not mad, so that the miracle of her redemption is a amoral and not a medical matter.
The love interest is made to operate as a device for speeding up the plot rather than as its pivot as in Forza del Destino. Although the Hebrew commander, Ismaele, loves the Babylonian princess, Fenena, and in turn is desired by Abigaille, these entanglements are second to the conflicts over power and belief. The central duet, in Part III, is a power struggle between the father-daughter figures Abigaille and Nabucco, not a romantic exchange between Abigaille and Ismaele, or Ismaele and Fenena.
Also in the background is the vengeance motif that would enrich Rigoletto and drive Il Trovatore. In place of a personal vendetta by jester or witch, Abigaille seeks victory over the circumstances of her birth as the child of a salve and one of Nabucco’s wives. The element of class discrimination is blatant but does not lead Abigaille towards leadership of the oppressed. On the contrary, she determines to erase her lowly status by seizing the throne through the murder of her part-sister and the deposing of her adoptive father. Abigaille embodies the snobbishness that sustained the pretensions of monarchists to this day, and not only in Australia.
Another political theme to persist across Verdi’s career was anti-clericalism. His depiction of the High Priest of Baal was the first of several religious fanatics whom Verdi would excoriate, for example, in Aida and in Don Carlos. In life, he defied the censorship of archbishops and, as a patriot, bridled at the Papacy’s resistance to national unification. Even after the annexation of the Papal States, he could no reconcile “liberty o the press with the Inquisition … I cannot envisage them together even in this letter”.
Anti-Clericalism did not imply atheism, and was as common among Italy’s professional strata during the 1840s as were Communist party members going to mass a century later. Verdi could retain his apprehension of the numinous without receiving the sacraments just as he could summon up the power of sorcery on stage without being a slave to superstition. His familiarity with the bible was apparent in Nabucco but that fondness represented a Protestant outlook where humans communed with their god without the interference of priests. In Nabucco, Verdi fulfilled Mazzini’s 1836 call for an Italian opera which inspired the moral as well as the political senses.
Verdi did not conceive Nabucco as a political statement in the way that he answered Mazzini’s request for a national hymn with “Suona la tromba” in 1848, or even as he could approach, some 25 years later, the Requiem for the novelist Alessandro Manzoni.(1785-1873) whose The Betrothed, was to Italian letters what Verdi’s became to its music. In 1841, the 28-year old aspirant composer was at a loss, personally and professionally. His daughter and then his wife had died. His second opera had flopped. He did not know if he would write another. Once he turned 30, he would lose the excuse of youthfulness, at least for himself. Hence his immediate motivation in writing Nabucco was to redeem his reputation and to secure his self-esteem. To that extent, he could emphathise with Abigaille.
Later, Verdi would claim that he had been captured by the libretto when, as if through bibliomancy, his eye fell upon the line. “Va, pensiero, sull’a li dorate”. The plight of the enslaved Jews set off echoes for the conditions of the Italians under foreign domination. The father of his librettist, Temistocle Solera, had been imprisoned in 1821 for rebelling against the Austrians. As a supporter of Mazzini, Verdi welcomed the response of the populace who identified their national circumstances with those he had presented in the theatre. However, the interpretations placed on his works were not always in line with his own principles. The chant of “Viva VERDI” as an encoded means to shout “Viva Victor Emmanuel, Re d’Italia” offended against his republican preferences. The exiled Mazzini should be seen as the guiding hand for both composer and librettist.
Since the revelation of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry, Nabucco has acquired an additional political dimension. The plan by the high priest of Baal to slaughter the Hebrews now resonates with a terribleness it could not have had for Verdi or his nineteenth-century audiences. To the extent that Italians were Christians they shared in the anti-Semitism against the Christ-killers, yet Italy offered a refugee for Jews expelled from other parts of Europe, as in the Venetian Ghetto. Moreover, Verdi enlisted his audience’s support for the Jews against their captors, while the kind and his daughter are both converted to the god of the Israelites. The Inquisition in Italy prosecuted lapsed converts more than it persecuted the unbaptised. This comparatively mild history made Mussolini’s deporting of Jews to the Nazi death caps almost as surprising as it was monstrous. Our dark times have made Nabucco more sinister than even the most bloodcurdling vendetta.
The apprentice Verdi who wrote Nabucco lent on musical and dramatic effects from Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini just as Mazzini was heir to the liberals of the Napoleonic era. Yet both Verdi and Mazzini were already more than ciphers of their predecessors. If, as Budden claims, Verdi represented “a new personality in Italian music”, he won over his audiences because he also conveyed a new character in Italian public life, the musical expression of Mazzini’s “Young Italy” movement. This was the Verdi who, seven years after composing Nabucco, blasted his sometime librettist, Piave, for troubling him with musical matters:
“What’s got into you? … Do you believe I want to concern myself now with notes, with sounds? … There must be only one music welcome to the ears of Italians in 1848. The music of the cannon!”