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

Career Building: Verdi's 'Nabucco'

Hear An Introduction To 'Nabucco'

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'

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'

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.

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