A scene from Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’

Marty Sohl/Met Opera

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Verdi’s Jewish Opera Grandly Staged at the Metropolitan

Nabucco reveals the Hebrew roots of Italian nationhood

David P. Goldman
October 30, 2023
A scene from Verdi's ‘Nabucco’

Marty Sohl/Met Opera

Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), offered in numerous performances this season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is an anomaly, a work of deep Jewish sensibility by a notoriously lapsed Catholic. The young Verdi turned out a series of operas with patriotic themes during the turmoil of the 1840s, a period of Italian national awakening that culminated in the 1848 revolution and the founding of a short-lived Roman republic. Except for Nabucco, they have disappeared from the repertoire.

Verdi had no use for organized religion, but he attached a deep sense of sanctity to the Italian nation. His sense of the sacred elevates Nabucco’s score above the patriotic operas of his early endeavor, and keeps the opera evergreen for modern audiences, despite a creaky Romantic subplot. The Jewish concept of nationhood begins with the recognition that there is something higher than the nation itself, and that patriotic impulses must be tempered with reverence. The 28-year-old Verdi rose magnificently to the occasion. Although much of the opera is formulaic, Verdi produced musical moments that evoke a sense of awe as vivid as anything in his mature output.

Nabucco’s signature chorus, “Va Pensiero,” which paraphrases Psalm 137, grew to become Italy’s de facto national anthem, better loved than the bombastic official hymn “Fratelli d’Italia.” In “Va Pensiero,” the exiled Hebrews enslaved in Babylon sing longingly of the toppled towers of Jerusalem, lamenting that the golden harps of the prophets now hang mute upon the willow. When I first saw Nabucco at Rome’s Terme di Caracalla 40 years ago, older people in the audience stood to sing along with the performers, in a then-fading tradition that began with the Risorgimento, the nationalist resurgence that unified Italy and expelled its Austrian overlords in 1870.

Verdi himself badgered his librettist into adding religious content in place of Romantic stuffing. In the libretto’s first draft, “Va Pensiero” is followed by a love duet between Nabucco’s daughter Fenena and an Israelite leader. Verdi ordered his librettist to cut it, as he told a biographer:

“He asked me what I wanted instead of the [love duet for Fenena and Ismaele that originally followed the chorus, ‘Va pensiero’], and then I suggested to him to write a prophecy for the prophet Zaccaria … I locked the door, put the key in my pocket, and half-jokingly I said to Solera: ‘You are not getting out of here if you haven’t written the prophecy; here is the Bible, you already have the words ready-made.’”

Legend has it that the audience at Nabucco’s La Scala premiere demanded an encore of “Va Pensiero,” in a disguised political demonstration against the Austrian authorities. Thanks to digging by professor Roger Parker, we know that the chorus the audience demanded to hear twice wasn’t “Va Pensiero,” but the stunning a capella hymn “Immenso Je--vah” at the work’s conclusion. In dialogue with the whole chorus, Hebrews and Babylonians both, the exiled High Priest Zaccaria intones, “Great Je--vah, who has not felt Thy might? / Who is not as dust in Thy sight?” Harmonically daring, with a Schubertian modulation to the lower submediant, the hymn foreshadows the inventiveness of Verdi’s mature style. The opera’s best elements, and the music that the Milanese public demanded to hear twice, evinces a religious sensibility that rises above secular nationalism.

The Jewish concept of nationhood begins with the recognition that there is something higher than the nation itself, and that patriotic impulses must be tempered with reverence. The 28-year-old Verdi rose magnificently to the occasion.

“Va Pensiero” first became politically significant in Italy in the years just prior to unification in 1870. Toscanini conducted the song at Verdi’s funeral in 1901, in deference to “Va Pensiero’s” status in Italy’s political culture.

Some parts of the libretto have grown creaky with the years, to be sure. A Romantic subplot derived from an 1835 French drama is a minor distraction from the main story: Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, goes mad in his self-apotheosis, but at length acknowledges the God of the Hebrews and returns them to their homeland. This conflates elements of four parts of the Tanakh, but remains dramatically and emotionally persuasive.

In the Metropolitan Opera’s present revival of its 2001 production, Nabucco is a feast for ears, eyes, and soul. The Italian maestro Daniele Callegari gives a taut and tense direction to this ensemble opera, leading a cast of singers who are exciting even when they are imperfect. With its unusual density of choral and ensemble pieces, Nabucco is a conductor’s opera, and Callegari never disappointed.

The female lead, Abigaille, requires a soprano of preternatural range and technique. Liudmyla Monastyrska fills the role unevenly. The Ukrainian soprano can purr sotto voce, but her voice turns wildly unstable at full force, with a tortuous wobble in the high register. Judging from her recordings, the wobble was always there, but it is widening. At moments Monastyrska was painful to hear, which is a pity; she is a singer of extraordinary natural gifts. The Met appears to have cast her for political reasons, which isn’t doing her any favors. She would be well advised to take some time off and find a good voice coach.

The dueling basses, Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria and George Gagnidze as Nabucco, gave persuasive and sometimes moving renditions of their roles. Belosselskiy struggles occasionally with Verdi’s impossibly low tessitura, but personifies the Hebrew High Priest persuasively. Tenor SeokJong Baek, in his relatively brief role, evinces strong technique and thoughtful phrasing.

The rotating set features two sides. One is a Hebrew side of coarsely hewn rocks, representing both the First Temple and the Jews’ camp in exile. The second is a Babylonian side, a pyramidic pagan temple topped by a horned idol. Apart from a few costuming quirks (19th-century military attire for some of the soldiers), the staging is true to the period. In the first scene before the Temple, Jews are portrayed in tallesim reading from the Torah. The Jews are presented sympathetically in Temistocle Solera’s libretto, and the Met’s staging is faithful to the opera’s Judeophilic spirit.

Nabucco is widely seen as a political opera. But while Verdi’s nationalist operas have mostly dropped out of the repertory of major venues, Nabucco is still performed widely, in part because it has better music, and also because it is not so much a nationalist opera as a religious one. With the arguable exception of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Nabucco is the most Jewish of operas, with a deeply sympathetic portrayal of the First Exile.

Indeed it is its religious significance—even more than its musical excellence—that has made it so lastingly powerful. In strictly musical terms, “Va Pensiero” is one of the opera’s less interesting elements. It is a conventional antecedent-consequent construction that seldom strays outside three-chord harmony, except for a predictable shift to the dominant in the short bridge, and a couple of bars in the parallel (F#) minor. But the words, drawn from Psalm 137, remain unforgettable.

Internal evidence from the score itself suggests that Verdi knew that he had a hit. The overture to Nabucco assembles the usual pastiche of tunes that we will hear later in the work, with one noteworthy twist that, as far as I recall, Verdi never used again: “Va Pensiero” is heard first in the middle of the overture and at considerable length, but it is distended into triple time, rather than the duple time of the actual piece (in F major, at “Andantino”). This has the effect of extending each phrase by adding an extra beat, creating a sense of unrelieved suspense. This kind of phrase extension was not a novel technique—Mozart employed it in the “Ricordare” of his Requiem—but unusual and possibly unique in the case of Verdi. The tension created by the additional beat in each measure is resolved when we hear the tune itself at the beginning of the fourth act. That makes the choral statement of “Va Pensiero” all the more buoyant when we hear it in its proper duple meter. The elaborate musical setup for the chorus would not have gone unnoticed by Verdi’s musically sophisticated audience. I doubt that modern audiences would notice.

With the arguable exception of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni,’ ‘Nabucco’ is the most Jewish of operas, with a deeply sympathetic portrayal of the First Exile.

What Israel gave the world was more than a new concept of a polity. It was the idea of a people bound together by a sense of the sacred. That is why Nabucco resonated so deeply with the Italian nationalists of the mid-19th century.

It was not just the idea of Israel, but the living presence of Israel in Italy that was decisive for the ultimate success of Italian nationalism under the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont. “During the Risorgimento, the Jews were the most active group in favor of Italian unification. The reason was simple: all other states were aristocratic and Catholic and did not leave the Jews a place in society. Piedmont was the only liberal bourgeois state. It was secular—or at least opposed the rule of the Church,” notes historian Dan Segre.

The first prime minister of the united Italian kingdom, Count Cavour, had represented a constituency including the Turin ghetto. Segre notes that Cavour’s campaign manager “was the chief rabbi of Turin, Lelio Cantoni. Later when Cavour was prime minister of the country, the head of his cabinet was Isacco Artom. Born in Florence, wounded in the first war of independence (1848-1849), Artom became one of Italy’s first Jewish ambassadors. As for Cavour, his statue still stands in front of the ghetto.”

That helps explain why Jewish religious sensibility, and not simply one instance of the deliverance of the Jewish nation, made such a deep impression on the Risorgimento, and why Nabucco—its exemplary cultural manifestation—had a greater impact than Verdi’s explicitly political operas, and why it still draws crowds today.

The long war between Italian nationalism and Austrian imperialism came to a bad end. Italy joined the Allies in 1915 in the hope of reuniting Italians still under Austrian rule with the Italian nation. It was a mad venture with a tragic outcome: 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians died for the mountainous wasteland that divided the Kingdom of Italy from the Austrian Empire. Sir John Keegan observes in his history of the war that the Italians fought magnificently during its first two years, contrary to their later reputation, until Italy’s best soldiers had been killed and replaced by reluctant draftees.

Italian Jews continued to support anti-clerical parties, including Mussolini’s Fascists before the Race Manifesto of 1938. The Italian Jews found that they had abandoned the frying pan for the fire. The Catholic Church oppressed the Jews but did not propose to exterminate us. The changeling nationalism of Mussolini that replaced the Risorgimento after the First World War turned on the Jews with a vengeance.

Today, however, the idealism of Cavour’s Risorgimento and its Judeophilic sense of the sacred are only a memory. The elderly Italians who still rose from their seats for Verdi’s anthem in the 1980s are gone, and the modern audience fails to grasp the import of the concluding hymn that brought the house down at Nabucco’s premiere. The Jews have returned to Zion, but the rich culture that Judaism evoked a century and a half ago has faded. In that respect, we are still in galut. Va pensiero

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.