The Music of Verdi’s Nabucco

Verdi’s opera Nabucco, it must be remembered, was written and premiered during the last phase of the work of the three most important Italian composers of the day: Rossini (whose last opera, Guillaume Tell, had premiered in 1829), Donizetti (whose opera Maria Padilla preceded Nabucco at La Scala by a few months and whose last opera Dom Sébastien premiered in 1845) and Bellini (whose I Puritani premiered in 1835 and whose operas were a staple of La Scala during Verdi’s early years.) Therefore, the early 19th century traditions of operatic writing were demanded of the young composer, with the usual placement of double arias for the principal soloists, accompanied recitatives, ensembles and choruses. As has been pointed out by many scholars, the score is a mixture of music that fulfills the ordinary expectations of the contemporary audience and flashes of brilliance that mark the beginning of a major voice in Italian opera. The treatment of the chorus is especially remarkable in that it plays a significant role in every dramatic scene and is given music that is emotionally stirring for the listener. The Biblical paraphrase “Va, pensiero, sull ali dorate”, although it’s been mentioned many times, is a perfect example with a memorable melody and a structure that builds psychologically providing a cathartic moment that was rare for Italian opera at the time.
There are interesting orchestral textures in Nabucco, not least of which is the prayer of Zaccaria (a character patterned after the Biblical Jeremiah), which is unusually accompanied by six solo cellos. This gives the prayer (“Vieni o Levia…Tu sul labbro”) a standout quality that focuses on the importance of this character and underlines the pathetic position of the Hebrews in their captivity. Fascinating, though, is the absence of a principal tenor role (Ismaele is involved only in ensembles and recitative), the prominence of bass (Zaccaria) and baritone (Nabucco) roles and the unusual quality of the soprano role of Abigaille which, even to this day, makes casting her extremely difficult. This demanding part requires agility in the upper register, an unusually wide range of notes, and declamatory, dramatic power throughout. These are nearly impossible demands, and make one wonder what kind of qualities the original Abagaille, Giuseppina Strepponi, must’ve had! One need only listen to her double aria from Part II to realize this. The lyrical opening recitative and cavatina (“Anch’io dischioso un giorno” call not only for a two octave leap (at the end of the recitative) but tender coloratura in the aria itself. The cabaletta (“Salgo già del trono aurato”)after the interruption of the chorus is, in a word, insane: angular, rapidly-paced, with quick leaps from one register to another and scale passages that run from the top of the soprano’s range to the very bottom. These technical difficulties were probably carefully calculated by Verdi in order to reveal the ‘rough’ character of the register shifts that naturally occur in the voice of a dramatic soprano in attempting such athletic feats. This gives Abagaille an edgier, even more dramatic presentation, indeed forces a more dramatic presentation into the voice, assuring the audience of real fireworks onstage. The problem lies in the ability of an opera company to find a soprano whose voice can sustain the demands with a heft and color that will fill a large hall. In terms of Verdi’s later dramatic soprano roles, only the role of Lady Macbeth came close to matching and producing the same effects. (The roles of Leonora, Aida, Elisabetta, Violetta and Desdemona have their own issues!)