Friday, August 19, 2011

A Historian Sees "Nabucco" for the First Time

Being a historian and loving opera can be very challenging. After going to the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport to see Nabucco, simulcast live from Taormina, Sicily, I have come to the conclusion that even though I love Giuseppe Verdi best, logic wasn't his strong suit. Ah, well; one can’t be good at everything.

Nabucco, has a very convoluted plot; not as weird as Il Trovatore but strange nevertheless. It is very peculiar watching an opera about Jews (as compared with the Egyptians and Ethiopians in Aida, for instance, or Turandot's Chinese ice maiden-princess). Periodically, the chorus would sing about killing the Jews: “Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!” Honestly, I never thought of that phrase as a chorus’s refrain. I didn't know the plot in advance so I was sitting there wondering if a wide-scale massacre was about to take place; Nabucco was the star, after all. About halfway through, I realized that I had no clue what was going on--and I was wide awake. I even had an ice coffee at the beginning of the opera. 

Then it turns out that the Assyrian princess, Fenena, daughter of Nabucco, (the true-life Babylonian King Nabucodonosor, or as we call him in English, Nebuchadnezzar) who has been taken hostage by the Jews, is in love with the Jew, Ismaele, nephew of the High Priest Zaccharia. Ismaele was the Judean ambassador, to the Assyrians in Babylon. Assyrians in Babylon?  Yes, Babylon conquered Assyria but the events with the Jews were ten years apart. I started getting a headache at this point. 

Wait a minute. Jews had diplomatic relations with their enemies? The ones who conquered them and then moved them en masse to Babylon where they languished in exile? THEN it turns out that her sister, Abigaille, is also in love with the Jewish ambassador. She will spare his people if he stays with her. (I found myself wondering if Abigail Adams knew the origin of her name.)

Nabucco tells her that she, Abigaille, isn't really his daughter, a princess, but is actually a slave. She then grabs the document proving this and tears it to pieces. In the meantime, Fenena converts to Judaism. What?  
Nabucco condemns the Hebrews to death, spurred by the jealous Abigalle.  Then Nabucco has a nervous breakdown. I did, too.  Abigaille seizes power while he is, er, indisposed.  Later, he recovers his powers completely and declares himself for the Jewish God. What???  Who's writing this stuff?  The author of Star Trek? It has a happy ending. The Jews are saved and the evil Abigaille dies.  It was a very weird death scene. ("I'm melting!! Melting!!")

I'm not making this up. I'll spare you the rest of it. Suffice it to say that sometimes it's better just to close your eyes and listen to the music. The most memorable aria from the opera is:
 "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate / "Fly, thought, on golden wings." It is one of the rare arias that the Met permits an encore of. They did an encore here as well. Gorgeous.

Someday, I want to go to see the opera in August, in the ampitheater in Taormina, in Sicily.What a beautiful place; it takes your breath away. Halfway through the opera, the moon came up, and you could see lights outlining the Sicilian coast. It was spectacular.


  1. "It is very peculiar watching an opera about Jews" - so please speak-up and clarify - do you (or do you NOT) believe that the Jewish people with such rich and ancient history, which they have, deserve to have an opera or two dedicated to them ?
    Do you by the way know that there are actually at least two more operas, dedicated to the history of Jews and/or Jews being the main character of the opera?
    One of them is "Moses in Egypt" - by Rossiniè_in_Egitto
    and another is "The Jewess" by Halevi‎

    Returning to "Nabucco", you failed to describe that the main idea of the opera's plot is to show the Ultimate grace and power of the only one TRUE God - the God of Jews.
    By the end of the opera not only Fenena but also Nabucodonosor (in English - Nebuchadnezzar) and his adopted daughter Abigaille convert from idol worshiping (to Baal ) to true faith of Judaism and recognize omnipotence of the Jewish God.
    You may not like those above mentioned ideas but the first performance of the opera at La Scala in Milan in 1842 was a triumph.

    Here is the “Va pensiero” (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) complete lyric's English Translation

    Fly, thoughts, on golden wings.
    Hasten and rest on the densely wooded hills,
    where warm and fragrant and soft
    are the gentle breezes of our native land!
    The banks of the Jordan we greet
    and the towers of Zion.
    O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!
    O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!
    Golden harp of our prophets,
    why do you hang silently on the willow?
    Rekindle the memories of our hearts,
    and speak of the times gone by!
    Or, like the fateful Solomon,
    draw a lament of raw sound;
    or permit the Lord to inspire us
    to endure our suffering!

    It is necessary to note that above text closely follows psalm of David #137 (" By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down ...")

    "... even though I love Giuseppe Verdi best, logic wasn't his strong suit."
    By the way, being an opera connoisseur, as you claim you are, you suppose to know that typically a libretto for an opera is written by the librettist (in this particular case - by Temistocle Solera)and not by a composer - so I am bewildered that you are "crediting" Verdi for the "defects" of the plot.

  2. Did the author of the original article "A Historian Sees 'Nabucco' For the First Time" respond to the critique by "anonymous"?

  3. I am sorry. I didn't see your letter until now; only a few years late. It was peculiar to be a Jew and to be hearing "Kill the Jews" sung in a chorus. It was very disorienting. I am not a connoisseur; only an opera lover. I hadn't read the Biblical passages for a long time (since grammar school) and had forgotten them.