It’s easy for a wonderful work like Nabucco to get lost amidst the great riches of Italian opera. An example: The Lyric Opera Companion is a collection of essays on 90 operas – the “world’s greatest” says the cover. It includes 14 operas by Verdi, but Nabucco is not one of them. I think that says more about Verdi’s body of work than it does about Nabucco. It also says more about the collection, one that excludes, for example, the Bellini masterpiece Norma while including Twentieth Century smash hits like The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (boy it's hard to stop humming those Glass tunes).
Nabucco's story line seems a curious one for Verdi, in his grief, to tackle, but the impresario of La Scala pressed him to undertake it. The libretto is based on biblical stories of the trials and tribulations of the Hebrews in Jerusalem as they are attacked and conquered by the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar II (shortened to Nabucco) from Babylon, who after destroying their great Temple hauls them off to Babylon as slaves. That part is historical. The libretto adds a love triangle between a Hebrew soldier of royal blood and Nabucco’s two daughters who both desire the young man. The rejected sister vows vengeance, and eventually usurps the throne intending to kill the Hebrew captives. Great melodrama ensues.
Although it has grand musical moments, apart from one piece Nabucco’s music is rarely featured on compilation albums. One reason may be that despite many wonderful ensemble sections, the tenor role is minimal – the solos and most of the male singing are for the bass and the baritone. In fact, the bass has a great deal of solo singing, though too much of that low, low register for my taste. Certainly a band or an orchestra needs a double bass fiddle, but not front and center carrying the melody. Nevertheless, there is some beautiful music. Notable is the moving second act quartet, which blends into a moving ensemble as more singers join in. The one well-known number is the melodic and stirring "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," sung by a downtrodden group of Hebrew slaves toiling along the Euphrates who sing the hopeful “Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate” ("Fly, thought, on golden wings"). In fact, when Nabucco premiered some feared the piece would remind northern Italians of their subjugation by their then Austrian rulers and thus enflame political passions.
|This is the recording I have been enjoying; |
Domingo sings the relatively-small tenor role