The birth of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera, “Nabucco,” came about almost by accident. In 1841, the 28-year-old Verdi, paralyzed by depression following the death of his wife and children, and the failure of his second opera, vowed never to compose again. Receiving a libretto from Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of Milan’s La Scala Theater, Verdi threw the manuscript violently on the table, causing it to fall open on the words of Hebrew slaves: “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” translated to mean, “Fly, thought, on golden wings.” Inspired by this paraphrase from the Bible, Verdi decided to write a drama made for a great chorus, composing an opera whose popularity would turn his fate around.
The libretto, written by Temistocle Solera, had been adapted from the Old Testament and followed the plight of the Hebrews during Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judea in 586 BCE, when many Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon. When the opera premiered, the struggle of the Jews against Babylonian oppression, and a yearning for their own homeland, struck a popular chord with the 19th-century Italian audiences who had long been worked up with nationalistic feelings stirred by their monarchs, a number of whom wanted to unite Italy so as to get out from under the thumb of the Austrian Empire. The opera’s portrayal of a specific royal family — Nebuchadnezzar and his two daughters — could have easily been associated with the Habsburgs, who controlled much of Europe at the time. And so, “Nabucco” launched a myth of Verdi as a “master of the revolution” and the official composer of the Risorgimento, the political process that unified Italy. Likewise, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, or “Va pensiero,” gained the status of a second national hymn of Italy. It was performed at Verdi’s own funeral and at the funeral of the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, was played during the reopening of the La Scala Theater after World War II in 1946 and is still sung today at national and international events, one of which was the Soccer World Cup in 1990.
After 57 productions at La Scala in 1842 and its appearance on the great stages of the world from Paris to New York, the opera premiered in St. Petersburg in 1851. St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater could not afford to exclude “Nabucco” from its repertoire when the opera continued roaring on the stages of enlightened Europe. But the Russian scene was not ready for heroic Jews marching and singing hymns of freedom. A compromise was found. The production made no mention either of Jews or of Nebuchadnezzar. In the Russian version, the dramatic conflict unfolded between the Assyrian king and the citizens of Babylon! All the major figures of the opera were consequently renamed, including Nebuchadnezzar, “Nabucco” himself — and the name of the whole opera was changed to “Nino.” The production was well received by audiences, but critics were reluctant to praise it and attributed its success to the Italian performers, rather than to the score or the libretto. As one critic wrote, “It seems to us that with weaker performers, this opera would be received inconsequentially. Let us wait for the next round of performances to judge properly.” But the next round of performances in Russia would not be staged again until 2001, when the opera was produced by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In the 2006-2007 season the opera has been performed in stage and concert versions by three of Moscow’s four major opera companies — the Bolshoi Theater, the Helikon Opera and, most recently, the Novaya Opera, where “Nabucco” premiered in December as a bold and modern production in which Latvian director Andrejs Zagars moves the action out of Babylon and into a 1930s Moscow metro station. The chorus arrives on stage with suitcases, as if awaiting deportation; Nabucco’s soldiers, dressed in leather coats and wielding machine guns, bear a likeness to the Gestapo, or perhaps the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. When the gates of this Jerusalem are overtaken by the king’s army, the Hebrew prisoners are hoist into a deep stairwell in the middle of the station that is reminiscent of the pits Jews were hurled into as they were massacred by the Nazis. The Hebrews are forced to wear yellow stars of David, though the staging borrows imagery not only from Hitler’s Germany, but more generally from dictatorial regimes of this period — Stalin in the USSR, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain. When Nabucco’s daughter Abigaille seizes power in the second act, her performance by Elena Popovskaya even appears to channel a bit of Eva Peron. Later, an iron grill descends on the Hebrews as they sing their plea to the audience, evoking in a very literal way the iron curtain that locked in all Soviets, preventing contact with the outside world.
Explaining why he chose a backdrop of the 1930s, Zagars wrote, “The fear before the future which seized people in those years was great, and all of Europe sensed the advance of war. On this ‘nerve’ we wanted to produce our performance.” This explanation makes a lot of sense in light of the political climate that made “Nabucco” popular in its own time. “Va pensiero,” though it looks ahead to war, is not a call to battle. The choir’s passionate singing is followed twice by a pianissimo whisper, and the closing phrase consists of pianissimo chords that descend as the captives wonder what is to come. Of it music historian Irina Kotkina has written: “Verdi’s melodies succeed in conveying the bloodlust that seized Europe before 1848, and tremble with horror before uncertainty.”
Noting its political significance, Kotkina has pointed out that “Nabucco” tends to reappear on stage in dramatic times. “It does not,” she wrote for the Bolshoi’s premiere in 2001, “enjoy popularity during the calmer moments of history.”
In 2007 Russians look ahead with trepidation at the possibility of another dramatic power transfer. If Vladimir Putin really steps down in March 2008, as he promises, many Russians are correct to fear instability, which could result from a struggle to establish a new leader. The Russian political system lacks almost all functioning institutions to allow for a smooth transfer of power because Putin has weakened everything from the independent media and regional governments, to alternative political parties and the houses of parliament — effectively creating a system held together by only one nail: himself. If there is a successor being groomed, nobody knows for sure who it is, or if, when the time comes, various competing clans will actually submit to that person’s authority. Some believe the parliament will change the constitution to give Putin a third term, or that he will continue to rule behind the scenes from a different post. The mood in Russia is not one of battle, but it is one of almost complete uncertainty, which makes the theaters’ renewed interest in a “political” opera like “Nabucco” all the more rich and pertinent.
Sana Krasikov is a Fulbright fellow living in Moscow. Her collection of short stories will be published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, in summer 2008.
This story "After a 150-Year Intermission, Biblical-Themed Opera Reappears in Russia" was written by Sana Krasikov.