Career Building: Verdi's 'Nabucco' "Go, thoughts, on wings of gold": did one chance encounter really lead to Verdi's first big hit?
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Hear An Introduction To 'Nabucco'

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Career Building: Verdi's 'Nabucco'

Career Building: Verdi's 'Nabucco'

Hear An Introduction To 'Nabucco'

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Verdi's 'Nabucco' performed at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Photo Corrado Maria Falsini/courtesy of Opera Roma hide caption

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Photo Corrado Maria Falsini/courtesy of Opera Roma

Verdi's 'Nabucco' performed at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

Photo Corrado Maria Falsini/courtesy of Opera Roma

If we can believe Giuseppe Verdi, if it weren't for one chance encounter early in his career, he might never have written a single great opera.

In 1840, Verdi's second opera, King for a Day, premiered at Milan's historic opera house, La Scala. The piece was a dismal failure, and it came at a time when the composer's emotional health was already fragile. His wife, Margherita, had died earlier that year, and the couple had recently lost both of their children. Following the failed opera and in the throes of depression, Verdi decided to give up music altogether.

Then, the composer later reported, he unexpectedly ran into La Scala's impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, on the streets of Milan. Merelli had a new libretto on his hands — called Nabucco — and talked a reluctant Verdi into looking at it. Verdi, as the story goes, took the libretto home and put it aside, finally reading it late at night when he had trouble sleeping. He happened to open the pages to the words of a now-famous chorus: "Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate " — "Go, thoughts, on wings of gold." Drawn in by those words, he agreed to compose the opera, which became his first unqualified hit.

The Hit Single

In Part 3 of 'Nabucco,' a chorus of Hebrew slaves sings the emotional chorus "Va, pensiero." It's one of Verdi's most beloved numbers and was adopted by Italian patriots as an anthem symbolic of national unity.

'Va pensiero'

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The B Side

Late in the opera, Nabucco (baritone Leo Nucci) has been driven mad and deposed as king of Babylon. In desperation, he sings "Dio di Giuda," a fervent prayer to the Hebrew God.

'Dio di Giuda'

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It's a great story, though Verdi did have a tendency to exaggerate tales of his early career. He once recalled the busy years after Nabucco somewhat bitterly as his "years in the galley," and while he certainly composed feverishly during that period, he was hardly working for slave wages. The tremendous success of Nabucco propelled Verdi to a series of triumphs that made him one of the most famous men in Europe and a true Italian hero.

Still, the story of the opera's genesis somehow rings true. And if Verdi's remarkable creative life began with Nabucco, we might say it ended with it as well. When Verdi died in 1901, the immense crowd that gathered for his funeral procession joined a massed choir to sing "Va, pensiero," the chorus that helped launch one of music's most celebrated careers.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance of Nabucco from the Rome Opera, starring baritone Leo Nucci in the title role, along with tenor Antonio Poli, soprano Csilla Boross and mezzo-soprano Anna Malavasi. The production is led by conductor Riccardo Muti.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Nabucco'

Leo Nucci as Nabucco. null/courtesy of Opera Roma hide caption

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null/courtesy of Opera Roma

Leo Nucci as Nabucco.

null/courtesy of Opera Roma

Set in 586 B.C., the opera Nabucco begins at the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and from there moves to the palaces of Babylon. As PART ONE gets started, Jerusalem is on the verge of capture by the Babylonians and their king, Nebuchadnezzar — in Italian, he's called Nabucco. The Hebrews have taken refuge in the temple, where the high priest Zaccaria cheers his people by producing a Babylonian prisoner, Nabucco's daughter Fenena.

When the crowd breaks up, Fenena is left with Ismaele, a nephew of the King of Jerusalem. While they're alone together, a group of Babylonian soldiers charges in; they are led by Abigaille, Fenena's older sister, whose forces have captured the temple. Just before Abigaille's furious appearance, we've learned that Fenena and Ismaele are in love — they first met in Babylon, where Fenena helped him escape from prison. But she also helped him escape from Abigaille, who had her own designs on Ismaele, and still does. Now, Abigaille is not amused at finding Ismaele in cozy quarters with her little sister. But when Abigaille offers him freedom in exchange for his love, Ismaele is unimpressed.

Who's Who

Leo Nucci ................ Nabucco

Antonio Poli ............... Ismaele

Csilla Boross ............ Abigaille

Anna Malavasi ........... Fenena

Dmitry Beloselskiy ..... Zaccaria

Erika Grimaldi ............... Anna

Saverio Fiore ............. Abdallo

Goran Juric ............High Priest

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Riccardo Muti, conductor

As the Jews led by Zaccaria return to the temple, Nabucco also rides up in triumph. There's a violent confrontation and Zaccaria grabs Fenena, threatening to kill her. But Ismaele intervenes, and Fenena runs to her father. As Nabucco orders his army to sack the temple, the Jews denounce Ismaele for saving Fenena.

In PART TWO, the Jews have been taken captive and exiled to Babylon, where an unhappy Abigaille is alone in the palace. Nabucco has left for battle, and instead of leaving Abigaille on the throne, he's passed her over and left little sister Fenena in charge — and Abigaille has just discovered why. She's found a document proving that she is not Nabucco's natural daughter; she was born a slave, and was adopted by the king as an infant. The High Priest of Baal enters and urges her to seize the throne herself. He then helps out by spreading the word that Nabucco is dead.

In another room in the palace, Zaccaria reveals to his people that Fenena, who sits on the throne of Babyon, has converted, and is now a Jew.

News of the war then arrives, and it's not good for the Babylonians; there are reports that Nabucco has been killed. Abigaille uses that news to make her own bid for power. She's just putting on the royal crown when Nabucco — who isn't dead after all — makes a dramatic return, and takes it from her.

The scene builds as the various factions and individuals declare their intentions. Finally, Nabucco declares that he's not only the king, but he is also a god on earth. Suddenly there's a clap of thunder. The crown is miraculously thrown from Nabucco's head and dashed to the floor and Nabucco instantly goes mad. With the king babbling incoherently, Abigaille decides that Babylon is rightfully hers, and finds little opposition.

For PART THREE, the setting is still Babylon, at the legendary hanging gardens. Nabucco is still the king, but in name only. Abigaille has taken power by dethroning Fenena. The High Priest of Baal has announced that Fenena's behavior is treasonous, and decrees that she must be executed along with all the captured Hebrews.

After an opening chorus and the fateful declaration by the High Priest, the first scene is dominated by a tense encounter between Abigaille and Nabucco. Legally, he's still the king. That means Fenena and the Jews can only be killed by his command, which he refuses to give. Then, when Abigaille tricks Nabucco into signing the order, he decides to play his trump card. Nabucco reveals Abigaille's true origins, as a slave girl he adopted in infancy. But Abigaille already knows about that — and she has destroyed the only document that proves it. Nabucco is reduced to pleading for mercy, but Abigaille dismisses him.

In the next scene, on the banks of the Euphrates, the Jews remember their homeland in the famous chorus "Va pensiero," and Zaccaria foresees the fall of Babylon.

As PART FOUR begins, Nabucco is alone in his palace, and he hears the procession leading Fenena to her death. He has no legal power to stop it, so he makes one last desperate attempt: He prays to the God of Israel, in the aria "Dio di Giuda." The prayer is answered instantly, and Nabucco's insanity is cured. He summons a group of his warriors. When they realize their king is well again, he calls them to arms, and they head off to save Fenena.

The opera ends back at the hanging gardens, where Fenena and the Hebrews are about to be executed. Nabucco arrives just in time. He gives orders for the idol of Baal to be destroyed, and it immediately crumbles to dust. Nabucco then demands that the Jews be released, and that Babylon erect a temple to the Hebrew God. Finally, Abigaille is carried in. Knowing that Nabucco will condemn her, she has taken poison. Abigaille begs Fenena for forgiveness, and dies.