“Qui si attenda”
Inno della morte
Gran scena e preghiera
Suzan Hanson, Laura Schmidt, and the Chorus
“Carlo il sommo Imperatore”
Babatunde Akinboboye and the Men’s Chorus
“Dio che nell’alma infondere”
Raúl Hernández, Roberto Perlas Gómez, and the Men’s Chorus
“Che faceste? Dite su!”
The Women’s Chorus
“Giorno non vidi mai”
Mr. Gómez, Mauricio A. Palma II, and the Women’s Chorus
The Women’s Chorus
“O figli, o figli miei!”
“Sangue a me”
Ms. Hanson, Mr. Hernández, Mr. Gómez, Leslie Schipa, and the Chorus
“Gli arredi festivi”
Finale Primo: “Lo vedeste?”
Ms. Hanson, Mr. Hernández, Mr. Gómez, Mr. Akinboboye, Megan Gillespie, VanNessa Hulme, and the Chorus
“Ben io t’invenni, o fatal scritto!” … “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno”
“Che si vuol?”
Mr. Hernández and the Men’s Chorus
“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale”
Ms. Hanson, Mr. Hernández, Mr. Gómez, Judy Tran Gallego, and the Chorus
“What a Joy to Be Here!”
The Walter Fox Singers (Lyrics by DeReau K. Farrar, to the music of Champagne’s Delicious Bubbles)
“Sing to Love”
Mr. Gómez, Ms. Hanson, Mr. Hernández, and the Chorus
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Shakespeare’s observation, voiced by a sleepless Henry IV, is fitting for the royalty represented in tonight’s performance: Mary Stuart, beheaded as a threat to the reign of Elizabeth I; Don Carlo, the unfortunate son of Phillip II of Spain during a time of great political and religious turmoil; the ambitious and easily manipulated Macbeth, who tried to slaughter all who blocked his path to the throne or who might seize it from him; and the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, overthrown by a combination of his own hubris and his scheming daughter.
The burdens of royalty, both political and romantic, are a thematic staple of opera, from Purcell and Monteverdi to the advent of verismo. The high stakes of winning or keeping a crown perfectly lend themselves to the heightened dramatic demands of opera. However, Shakespeare might as easily have said (given the political circumstances of his time, he could safely only imply it) that when kings and queens were struggling, the worst burdens frequently fell on their subjects. Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda captures the extreme highs of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects, and the lows felt by Mary, Queen of Scots’ courtiers as she is led to her execution. However, no one captured the theatrical possibilities of representing the downtrodden subjects of heedless rulers better than Giuseppe Verdi, as exemplified in this concert by the Hebrews during the Babylonian captivity, and the wretched people of Scotland as Macbeth lays waste to Scotland in his drive to retain his ill-gotten throne. As Dick Hutman notes in his article “Leaders and Lemmings” elsewhere on this website, the Verdi Chorus has portrayed the many facets of human society for thirty years. While our kings and queens concern themselves with their grand schemes and high-flown loves, we are there to support them, be subjugated by them, or, sometimes, even laugh at them.
Domenico Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo to a poor family with no musical background, but he went on to become one of the most successful of 19th Century Italian bel canto composers. Early in his career, he wrote an extensive variety of music that included church music, string quartets, and orchestral works, but interest in one of his early operas led to his devoting himself almost exclusively to composing operas, of which he wrote an astonishing number (over 70) in a short 12 years. The kings of bel canto composers, Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, dominated the world of Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century up to and including the entrance of Giuseppe Verdi on the operatic scene. However, whereas Bellini is now represented mainly by dramatic operas such as Norma and Rossini by his comic masterpieces such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, Donizetti continues to shine on the world stage in both serious operas such as his tragic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor and comic works such as Don Pasquale, La fille du régiment and L’elisir d’amore.
Donizetti wrote several operas about the Tudor period in England, the most famous of which are his three “Donizetti Queens,” Anna Bolena (which brought him his first international success in 1830); Roberto Devereux (premiered in 1837 and portraying the supposed love affair between the title character and Elizabeth I); and Maria Stuarda. Based on Friedrich von Schiller’s 1800 drama, Maria Stuarda deals with the tragic end of Mary, Queen of Scots during the reign of Elizabeth I. The libretto (written by the 18-year old Giuseppe Bardari and based on a translation by Andrea Maffei, also one of Verdi’s favorite collaborators) retains much of the structure of Schiller’s play, including the love triangle among Mary, Elizabeth, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In a striking scene (with no basis in historical fact), both play and libretto present a highly charged meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Condemned to death by Elizabeth’s Privy Council, Mary entreats her cousin to spare her life. Elizabeth is unmoved by her cousin’s humble plea and castigates Mary, who angrily lashes back at her. In a rage, Elizabeth finally agrees to sign the death warrant and orders her favorite Leicester (whom she jealously, but accurately, suspects of loving Mary) to prove his loyalty by presiding over Mary’s execution.
Maria Stuarda was to have premiered in Naples, but (as often happened throughout Italy, and particularly in Naples), its planned premiere in 1834 was banned. Although stories of political conspiracy against monarchs (such as the one that Mary was accused of) were always suspect, the libretto had been approved by the censors. However, the King of Naples directly intervened and at the last minute forbade its presentation, supposedly because Queen Maria Cristina was a direct descendant of Mary, Queen of Scots and was reported to have been overcome at the representation of her ancestor’s fate after having attended a dress rehearsal. Attempts to secure permission to change the characters were refused, and an entirely new libretto was pasted onto most of the existing score as Buondelmonte, which failed to win success in Naples. Donizetti was finally to see the premiere of Maria Stuarda as he had written it in 1835 in Milan because the famous singer Maria Malibran insisted on singing it as written and ignored the censor’s cuts. However, the city enforced a ban on later performances and the piece was poorly received, partly due to Malibran’s poor performance in the title role. A subsequent production planned for London was canceled due to Malibran’s very early death the following year, and the opera languished, mostly unproduced, for many years. Yet Maria Stuarda won respect in the 20th century and is now one of Donizetti’s most admired dramatic operas.
In Act I, Scene 1, Elizabeth’s court awaits the Queen’s arrival at the Palace of Westminster. Rumors of Elizabeth’s betrothal to the heir to France’s throne have spread among the court and they welcome the proposed era of peace with their longtime enemy. In “Qui s’attenda,” the courtiers exclaim that the queen, the joy of every heart, is almost there, returned from a tournament at the French court. How happy they would be if such a great love should be contracted. As Elizabeth makes a triumphal entrance, the members of the court exclaim that the pure star of England will appear even more beautiful once she is joined with the splendor of France. Joyously they celebrate the power of love.
The joyfulness of Elizabeth’s subjects in the first scene is in sharp contrast to the despair felt in the third act by Mary’s friends as they wait for her to be brought to the scaffold (Inno della Morte). They commiserate at the sight of the block and the executioner’s ax, and are horrified by the eager crowd at the foot of the steps to the scaffold. Scorning the low-born swarm who await their beloved Queen’s death, Mary’s supporters condemn the barbarous act that will forever bring shame and infamy to England. Mary’s lady-in-waiting Anna cautions them to restrain their grief so as not to cause Mary more sorrow. As Mary is brought in to bid farewell (Gran Scena e Preghiera), she comforts them and says she is content to go to a better life in the embrace of God. Instructing them that they should leave the sorrows of England after her death, she admonishes them for their tears. Giving the faithful Anna as a remembrance a handkerchief Mary has embroidered and bathed with her tears, she asks her adherents to join her in a humble prayer (“Deh! Tu di un umile preghiera,”) asking a merciful God to take pity on her and welcome her to the pardoning shelter of his grace. Mary’s friends beg her to forget the carelessness of her former life and pray that a benign heaven will pardon her and free her from sorrow and grief.
Don Carlo, written for the Paris Opéra and premiered in 1867, was based on Friedrich von Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos and was originally set to a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry. The drama begins during a truce between Spain and France in 1558. The title character is the son and presumed heir of Phillip II, King of Spain, who had annulled his son’s betrothal to the French princess Elizabeth and married the much younger Elizabeth himself, although Carlo and Elizabeth remain deeply in love. The familial conflicts take place amidst the sweep of a revolt against the Spanish occupation in Flanders (the Netherlands) and the height of the Spanish Inquisition. When the Opéra asked Verdi to compose a new work for them, among their proposals were King Lear, a libretto about Cleopatra, and Schiller’s play. King Lear had long tempted Verdi, but although there is some evidence that he sketched out a few scenes, he wrote at the time that he saw too many difficulties to successfully adapt it. However, along with Shakespeare, Schiller was a favorite author of Verdi’s (the works of both were likely to be found at his bedside), and many of both authors’ plays had been translated by Verdi’s admired friend Count Andrea Maffei. Prior to Don Carlo, Verdi had already written operas based on three Schiller plays: Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri, and Luisa Miller. It was not only the theatrical appeal of Schiller’s play which appealed to him, however. The Italian Risorgimento, seeking to restore Italy’s autonomy and stature in the world, was at its height. In fact, as Verdi was writing Don Carlo, war between Italy and Austria broke out and he was forced to leave his beloved home, where he preferred to work. The underlying political conflict in Don Carlos, the struggle of the Netherlands to be free of Spanish rule, appealed powerfully to a composer who chafed at being under the sway of the Austrians. Likewise, the idealistic and essentially anticlerical nature of the work also appealed to him, and it was his own inspiration to have the terrifying character of the Grand Inquisitor transformed into a blind and ancient man, neatly encapsulating his view of religious figures. Entitled Don Carlos at its Paris premiere, the Italian version, Don Carlo, was to become Verdi’s most frequently revised work, partly due to his dissatisfaction with the stringent demands of grand opera in Paris.
The first scene of Don Carlo is set in the cloister of a monastery that contains the tomb of Charles V, Carlo’s grandfather, the first of several scenes closely tied to the Spanish clergy. Monks sing in the chapel and the Friar kneels before the tomb. The monks raise their voices to pray for Charles, the supreme emperor (“Carlo il sommo Imperatore”), who is nothing but silent ashes, and now his soul trembles at the feet of his heavenly creator. The Friar declares that Charles wanted to rule the world, forgetting Him who guides the stars in their progress through the sky. The king’s pride was immense, and his error profound. Only God is great, and if He wills it, He makes the heavens and earth quake. The Friar prays that their merciful Lord, compassionate to the sinner, will grant Charles peace and forgiveness. The monks pray that God’s fury will not fall on his soul, and they again proclaim that only God is great.
As dawn breaks and the monks leave, Don Carlo enters and bemoans his fate because his father has claimed Don Carlo’s beloved as his own wife. Carlo’s long-time friend Rodrigo, the Marquis di Posa, joins Carlo, who admits to di Posa that he and Elizabeth are secretly in love. Di Posa tells the prince that he should relinquish his hopeless love and help the oppressed people of Flanders, whom di Posa supports. Di Posa urges Carlo to ask heaven for strength. Together they ask God, who instilled love and hope in their souls (“Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor,” to kindle a desire for liberty in their hearts. They swear that they will live and die together, on earth and in heaven. God’s goodness will unite them. Their last cry will be “Liberty!”
As noted earlier, Verdi was a great admirer of Shakespeare and early in his career stated his intention to compose operas based on Shakespeare’s major dramas. He long considered setting Hamlet and The Tempest and a libretto of King Lear was actually completed for him, although Verdi never set it to music. He was ultimately to write three operas based on Shakespeare, Macbeth being the first in 1847, concluding with his final operas, Otello and Falstaff. The choice of Shakespeare was a daring one – Shakespeare’s plays had only recently, and unsuccessfully, been publicly performed in Italy. In addition, it was considered practically operatic suicide to compose an opera without a conventional love story (however intense the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it is hardly that) and without a significant tenor role. Nonetheless, Verdi’s Macbeth was a rousing success and soon was played all over Italy. Verdi himself was quite happy with the opera and dedicated it to his father-in-law and longtime patron Antonio Barezzi, writing to him: “Here now is this Macbeth which is dearer to me than all my other operas, and which I therefore deem more worthy of being presented to you.” Verdi was to retain a keen interest in later productions of Macbeth and rewrote considerable parts of it for its Paris production in 1865, which is the version used in most performances.
Generally a stern taskmaster with his librettists, Verdi was even more forceful regarding Macbeth. Before assigning the libretto to his frequent collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi drafted his own, highly detailed synopsis for the opera and continued to write extensively to Piave criticizing problems with Piave’s script. Verdi finally had several scenes rewritten to his specifications by his friend Count Andrea Maffei (his librettist for I masnadieri and a trusted literary advisor). Although incensed by later suggestions that he was unfaithful to Shakespeare, Verdi made at least two significant changes. The witches as written by Shakespeare are three haggard crones, but Verdi wrote them as a three part chorus, and actually regarded them as the third main role in the work besides Macbeth and his Lady. To heighten the importance of the witches, Verdi severely reduced the number of other characters compared to Shakespeare, but added a crucial component. The common people of Scotland do not appear in Shakespeare, and Verdi’s scene of the Scottish exiles does not exist as a scene in Shakespeare’s play, although the text is drawn from Shakespeare’s scenes for Malcolm, Macduff and Ross. Like “Va, pensiero” and “Signore, dal tetto natio” from I Lombardi, the Exiles’ Chorus, “Patria oppressa,” is a lament for the devastation of one’s native land – an emotion strongly felt by an Italian public hungry for freedom from Austrian rule.
Macbeth opens with the appearance of three covens of witches amidst thunder and lightning. They exchange their news (“Che faceste?”): one has slit the throat of a boar, another has put a curse on a sailor whose wife has insulted her. She vows to drown both him and his ship, and the other witches will help her by raising the winds and casting him onto a shoal. A drum announces the arrival of Macbeth. The witches whirl in a dance as they sing of their powers to fly above sky and ocean, vagabond sisters weaving a circle around earth and sea.
Macbeth enters with Banquo. The two victorious generals exult that they have never seen a day so fierce and so fair (“Giorno non vidi mai.”) The witches hail Macbeth, not only as the rightful Thane of Cawdor, but as Thane of Glamis and King of Scotland. Macbeth is startled, and Banquo asks the witches to predict his future as well. The witches tell Banquo that he will be lesser than Macbeth and yet greater, and not be king but a father of kings – that his descendants will be kings of Scotland. Once more hailing Macbeth and Banquo, the witches vanish. Shortly thereafter, messengers arrive to announce to Macbeth that King Duncan has rewarded Macbeth’s valor by naming him Thane of Cawdor. Realizing that one of the witches’ predictions has already come true, Macbeth and Banquo leave to attend on the King. The witches reappear and comment on their departure (“S’allontanarono!”) The witches agree to meet again when they next hear thunder and lightning. They will fly away now, but will take care to fulfill their prophecies. They foresee that Macbeth will return to seek further predictions from them.
Macbeth sends a letter ahead to inform Lady Macbeth of the witches’ prophecies and tells her he is already made Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth longs for greatness, but will he be wicked enough to gain it? The road to power is full of misdeeds, and woe to him who doubtfully sets foot on it and then draws back. She wills him to hurry back (“Vieni! t’affretta!”) so she can inflame his cold heart. She will give him the courage he needs for his bold enterprise. The witches promised him the throne of Scotland. Why should he hesitate? He should accept the gift and ascend to reign.
Having been elected King to succeed the murdered Duncan, Macbeth’s rule is bloody and tyrannical. In Act IV we find a group of Scottish refugees at a deserted spot on the borders of Scotland, not far from Birnam Wood. Verdi outdid even the canny showman Shakespeare in this scene. Although Malcolm’s and Macduff’s descriptions of the people’s misery in Shakespeare’s play evoke our empathy, they cannot match the people themselves telling us how they are suffering, as Verdi and his librettist present it. Long a master at using the chorus as a vital character, Verdi does no less than present us with the voice of a nation. The exiles bemoan the fate of their oppressed homeland (“Patria oppressa!”) They can no longer call her by the name of mother, now that for all her children she has been changed into a tomb. The cries of the orphans and the bereaved spouses rise to heaven with each new dawn, and heaven can only respond with pity. The death knell tolls for all of them, but none of them are brave enough to offer a prayer for those who suffer and die.
The nobleman Macduff stands apart from the exiles, lost in his own sorrow. He has been informed of the deaths of his wife and small children, whom Macbeth has ordered murdered because the witches have warned him to beware of Macduff. He mourns his children (“O figli, of figli miei”), all killed by the tyrant along with their unfortunate mother. Did he, Macduff, abandon the mother and children to the claws of that tiger? Ah, his hand was not there as a shield for his dear ones, against the perfidious assassins that brought death to them. And to him, a fugitive hidden away, they called in vain with their final sob, their last breath. He begs God to let him come face to face with the tyrant, and if Macbeth should escape Macduff, then God himself can take Macbeth in his arms and pardon him.
In Act I of the opera, Macbeth had murdered King Duncan and blamed it on Duncan’s son Malcolm, who flees the country. Once crowned King, Macbeth has had Banquo assassinated, out of fear of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s offspring will become kings. In the finale of Act II, at a banquet in his castle, Macbeth is terrified to see the bloody ghost of Banquo appear in Macbeth’s own chair at the table. He orders the ghost to begone. No one but Macbeth can see the ghost, but the court is infected by his terror, and Lady Macbeth attempts to shame him into silence. Macbeth cries that the ghost wants blood from him (“Sangue a me”), and Macbeth swears that blood it shall have! He vows that the witches will tear away the veil hiding his future. Lady Macbeth berates his feeble spirit. His fears have created empty ghosts. The crime is done, and the dead cannot return. The noble Macduff vows that he will quit the country. Now that it is ruled by an evil hand, only the guilty can live in it. The courtiers suspect that Macbeth has guilty secrets. He is frightened by apparitions and they begin to recognize that their country has become a den of thieves.
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s first great success. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero,” a chorus that has remained one of Verdi’s most beloved pieces. Unusually, the choruses were singled out for acclaim in the reviews of Nabucco. An early pupil and assistant of Verdi, Emanuele Muzio, wrote that following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi was known as “il padre del coro” (the father of the chorus). Verdi had a particular facility for vivifying the choruses in his operas. He treated the populace not just as decorative props who commented on the action, but frequently made them a central character – often the people oppressed by the power, wealth and tyranny of the leading characters.
Verdi’s early career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and canceled after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties and had one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life. Even worse, during these years, both of his children died very young, and he lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever – hardly the ideal circumstances for creating a comic opera. In spite of his grief and his desire to abandon his career, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph.
Verdi told the newspaper critic Stafford of the Daily Graphic in January, 1893, years after Nabucco’s premiere, of the difficult circumstances of its La Scala premiere: “The artistes were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations to the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the Va, pensiero, but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and they were sitting about on ladders and scaffolding listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” That future included 75 performances at La Scala alone in the opera’s first year, followed by success throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Its first two years alone saw more than 50 different productions, including a performance conducted in Vienna by Donizetti, who had championed the work even before its premiere.
Nabucco had another significant role to play in Verdi’s life. The La Scala star for whom he specifically wrote the role of Abigaille– perhaps the most exciting (and exacting) role in the opera – was Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was a renowned singer at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of Nabucco, urging the management to give it a good position in the season. She was soon to become a friend and advisor, then Verdi’s mistress, and finally his wife of 38 years.
Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor) is based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon (referred to in the libretto as “Assyria”). It is set in Jerusalem and then Babylon during the reign of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 B.C., who destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.) As Nabucco begins, the Assyrian army is about to capture Jerusalem. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Hebrews, who threaten to kill her if their city is taken. Fenena is in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the Jewish king, after rescuing him from imprisonment when he was Jerusalem’s ambassador to Assyria. Ismaele is also loved by Abigaille, Fenena’s sister, who threatens revenge on both of them for Ismaele’s rejection of her. After overcoming the Hebrews, Nabucco destroys their temple and takes them into captivity in Assyria. During Nabucco’s absence at other wars, Abigaille attempts to usurp the throne. Nabucco returns in time to thwart her plan, but is struck by lightning and driven out of his senses when he claims that he is god. Abigaille assumes the crown and plans with the Assyrian priests to have all the Hebrews executed (including Fenena, who has converted to their faith). Nabucco regains his sanity and reclaims power. Recognizing that their God is supreme, he releases the Hebrews from captivity and promises to erect a new temple, while the repentant Abigaille begs for forgiveness as she dies from the poison she has taken.
The first scene of Nabucco takes place in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The terrified Hebrews rush into the temple, bemoaning the final onslaught of the barbarian hordes led by Nabucco, the King of Assyria. They cry out for the festive decorations of the temple to be thrown down and shattered (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti”), as they dress themselves in mourning. The king of Assyria is about to crush them as the terrible howling of the barbarous troops thunders in the temple of the Lord. The priests tell the young women to raise their arms in supplication, as their innocent prayers are most pleasing to the Lord. The virgins pray for the destruction of the Assyrians and beg for mercy and forgiveness of their sins. The Hebrews entreat God not to let them fall prey to the blasphemous foe nor to let Nabucco sit on the throne of David among his false Assyrian idols.
The High Priest Zaccaria had exhorted the Hebrews to leave the temple and fight off the approaching Assyrians. However, they are routed by the Assyrians and rush back into the temple. Horrified by the sight of the raging Nabucco erupting like thunder from the horde of Assyrians (“Lo vedeste?”) and brandishing his bloody sword as he approaches the temple, they watch as their remaining soldiers fight in vain to defend the holy place. Their prayers and weeping are cursed by heaven, and they envy those lucky ones who died before the dawn of this day. The overcome troops rush in to warn that Nabucco is almost there, charging on his horse like a whirlwind, bringing black ruin everywhere. Zaccaria is outraged at Nabucco’s effrontery at entering the temple on his horse. The Hebrews curse their misfortune and wonder who will save the Temple of the Lord.
Abigaille enters with her guards, followed by Nabucco and his troops. Zaccaria rebukes Nabucco and tells him to tremble in the house of God. The High Priest seizes Fenena and threatens to cut her throat if her father profanes the temple. Nabucco controls his rage, but mutters that it will fall heavily on the Hebrews as Fenena cries out to her father to save her. The Hebrews beg God to send them His aid, and Abigaille is excited to see that her hated sister may soon die. Nabucco orders the Hebrews to their knees and mocks their god, whom he has conquered in battle and who must be afraid of Nabucco. As Zaccaria again threatens to slay Fenena, Ismael seizes his dagger and frees her, saying that love will save her. Nabucco no longer has to restrain himself and orders his troops to plunder and burn the temple, telling them that mercy will be considered a crime. Abigaille vows that the Hebrews will be erased from the earth. If her heart’s affection can’t be extinguished, at least her hate will be satisfied. Fenena and Ismael pray that he will not be cursed for the actions of his love. Zaccaria and the Hebrews curse Ismael for his treason, saying that his name will be the shame of every age as heaven and earth cry out that all should flee from him. Believing Ismaele to have betrayed them, the Hebrews are taken into captivity.
The second act is set in Babylon, where the Hebrews are now enslaved and Nabucco has left Fenena as regent while he goes off to war again. Abigaille has stolen a document from Nabucco which proves that she is not his daughter, but the child of slaves whom he has adopted (“Ben io t’invenni, o fatal scritto!”). She is enraged by the belief that Nabucco intends to shame her. The Assyrians believe that she is Nabucco’s daughter, but he has left her worse than a slave! While he is with his soldiers and Fenena is ruler, Nabucco has left Abigaille behind to watch the loves of others. Abigaille vows that her fury will fall on everyone, but especially on Nabucco and Fenena. But her mind turns to her love for Ismaele, and she remembers the day when she once opened her heart to joy (“Anchi’io dischiuso un giorno”). Everything around her spoke of holy love. She wept at others’ tears and suffered others’ pain. She wonders who will return her to that lost enchantment.
The Hebrew men have been summoned to Fenena’s chambers by the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria. Wondering what is wanted of them (“Che si vuol?”), they ask who has summoned them so late at night, and are horrified to be met by Ismaele, who says the High Priest has sent for them. Unaware that Fenena has converted to their faith, they order Ismaele to leave and call him accursed of the Lord. Ismaele implores their mercy, but they tell him that the accursed has no brothers, nor anyone on earth who will speak with him. Ismaele begs them to cease their curses. Fear of being branded by God is driving him mad, and death would be preferable.
Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal have falsely proclaimed that Nabucco is dead, and arrive to claim the throne from Fenena in reprisal for her freeing of the Jews. As Abigaille reaches for the crown, Nabucco enters with his troops and seizes the crown from both of them. As he rises over all, Nabucco warns them that the moment of his fatal anger is drawing near (“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale”). Seeing the terror falling on their silent faces as the thunderbolts are about to fall on them, he warns them that a day of mourning and wretchedness approaches for them. His family and subjects fearfully take up his dire words, which carry a different meaning for both Abigaille and Zaccaria, both sure that they will prevail.
In later years, Verdi claimed that La Scala’s producer Merelli forced Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco on him in spite of Verdi having determined to give up his career. As Verdi threw the manuscript onto a table, the libretto fell open at the page with the opening lines of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” inspired by Psalm 137 lamenting the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Unable to resist reading the rest of the libretto immediately, he then reread it several times that evening. Whether Verdi’s mythologizing in later life is true or not, the premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of Va, pensiero (in spite of the Austrians’ having banned encores in the theaters, fearing any spontaneous political demonstrations). The chorus has remained one of the most beloved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus – described by the composer Rossini as a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses – resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves tell their thoughts to fly on golden wings (“Va, pensiero,”) to rest on the slopes and hills scented with the sweet air of their native land. Let them greet the banks of the Jordan and the fallen towers of Zion. O fatherland, so beautiful and lost! O memory, so dear and so fatal! Why does the golden harp of the prophets hang mute on the willow? They ask for their memories to be rekindled in their hearts and speak to them of the time that has been. May the sound of cruel lamentation be carried to the Lord and inspire Him to fill them with the strength to endure.
One example of royalty that does not need to lie uneasy about its continued reign is Die Fledermaus, the unabashed king of Viennese operetta at its height, and perhaps the most glittering jewel in Johann Strauss II’s crown. To celebrate our Thirtieth Anniversary, we are concluding with three of its most effervescent ensembles.
To express our pleasure in marking thirty years of splendid music making, what else can we say but “What a Joy to Be Here!”
Thanks to the generosity of Barbara Miller-Fox Abramoff in memory of long-time member Walter Fox, the Verdi Chorus is fortunate to provide an opportunity to a number of talented young singers who swell our ranks with their splendid sound and expert musicianship. Assistant to the Director DeReau K. Farrar has prepared A Toast! for this special occasion to the music of Strauss’ Champagne’s Delicious Bubbles.
Last but not least, none of us would be here were it not for our love of the brilliant music that we perform, the warm familial atmosphere of our Chorus, and the enthusiasm of our loyal friends. To rephrase the lyrics of “Sing to Love,” may our musical endeavors flourish for evermore as we send first one kiss, then one more, to our wonderful audience.