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. http://www.villaducale.com/taormina-events-2011.html