“Verdi’s operas are really horrible,” wrote the German composer Otto Nicolai when Nabucco premiered with stunning success at La Scala in 1842. “He scores like a fool—technically he is not even professional—and he must have the heart of a donkey, and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer.” Nabucco, in Nicolai’s opinion, was nothing but “rage, invective, bloodshed and murder.” One could argue that those four qualities are essential ingredients to any opera worth its salt. In his defense, Nicolai was eyeing a particularly sour bunch of grapes: Nabucco’s libretto—adapted by the Italian writer Temistocle Solera from a French script on Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of the ancient Israelites—had originally been offered to the German composer. Nicolai refused, leaving La Scala’s director Bartolomeo Merelli to insist that Verdi take on what turned out to be a career-making project.

Convincing Verdi to compose Nabucco was not a simple matter. Still under thirty, he had vowed never to compose again after the recent failure of his second opera, Un Giorno di regno (1840), and was weighed down by the tragic deaths of his first wife and their two sons. In his own recollection nearly forty years later, the composer flung down Solera’s libretto when Merelli gave it to him. But when he did so, he happened to catch sight of the first line of the opera’s iconic “Va, pensiero” chorus, an Israelite lament for the lost lands of Judea; the words, Verdi recognized, served as a powerful analogue to the plight of the Italian nation at the time, politically divided and under foreign control. The chorus is said to have been spontaneously sung by crowds throughout Italy when Verdi’s death was announced in 1901, and it was performed by a professional chorus of over eight hundred when his body was interred.

Luca Salsi as Nabucco in Verdi’s Nabucco at Arena di Verona. Photo: Courtesy of Arena di Verona.

If that story sounds too good to be true, another account related by Verdi to an Italian zoologist suggests that the composer ignored the libretto for months, and ultimately found inspiration in a death scene that was later cut from the opera. Either way, the opera’s plot contains all the potent elements that make Verdi’s operas distinct. Nabucco, the king of Babylon, a baritone part written in the unique high-tessitura style the composer preferred for such a range, conquers Jerusalem and destroys the Temple of Solomon. Meanwhile, his adopted daughter Abigaille, a child of slaves, plots to kill the rightful heiress Fenena, seize the throne, and massacre the Israelites. She gets her chance when Nabucco proclaims himself a god, provoking divine wrath in the form of a thunderbolt that deprives him of his faculties. Abigaille moves to take advantage of the moment and nearly succeeds in her evil plan, but Jehovah restores Nabucco to his senses and empowers him to defeat her. Grateful to the god of the Jews, Nabucco frees the Israelites, and Abigaille pleads for forgiveness while self-administering poison.

Maria Jośe Siri as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Arena di Verona. Photo: Courtesy of Arena di Verona.

Luca Salsi is Italy’s standard for Verdi’s earlier baritone roles. At the performance I attended, he delivered a gruff, barrel-chested Nabucco that made up for in power what it lacked in nuance. Maria José Siri got off to a rough start as Abigaille. The role is ferociously challenging, and the introductory aria “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” tested her pitch in the upper range. The aria’s accompanying cabaletta “Salgo già del trono aurato,” a triumphant anticipation of her success, is dominated by difficult coloratura runs in which Siri tended to sharp. As the plot progressed, however, she came more into her own. By the finale, she was on an even plane with Salsi. The Polish bass Rafał Siwek sang a woolly Zaccaria, the high priest of the Israelites. Fenena and her lover Ismaele play decidedly secondary roles in the larger drama—the great Verdi tenor roles were still in the composer’s future—but Vasilisa Berzhanskaya and Riccardo Rados inhabited them credibly.

Alvise Casellati directing Arena di Verona’s orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of Arena di Verona.

Under Alvise Casellati and Roberto Gabbiani, respectively, Verona’s orchestra and chorus made the performance soar. The production, designed by the late Gianfranco de Bosio, used stylized, boxy shapes to suggest the Temple of Solomon, the destruction of which is conveyed by an anticlimactic tearing down of some cloth meant to evoke the temple veil being rent in twain. The sets, created by the architect Rinaldo Olivieri, become more interesting in the Babylonian scenes, where the palace resembles the Tower of Babel in the early phases of construction and breaks apart at the critical moment when the balance of power shifts away from evil paganism and toward Jehovah.

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