By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note telecasts from the Met can be viewed at www.metopera.org
Sunday, May 17
Verdi’s Nabucco ~ 2Hrs. 30 Mins.
Starring Liudmyla Monastyrska, Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas, Plácido Domingo, and Dmitry Belosselskiy, conducted by James Levine. From January 7, 2017.
One of the last productions in Plácido Domingo and James Levine’s longtime collaboration, both at the Met and in opera houses all over the world. Domingo (by this time singing mostly baritone roles rather than the great tenor roles that made him famous) portrays Nabucco (“Nebuchadnezzar” in English), the King of Babylon. Liudmyla Monastyrska is the cruel and treacherous Abigaille, supposedly Nabucco’s oldest daughter. Her gentle younger sister, Fenena is played by Jamie Barton; Ismaele, the Hebrew emissary and nephew of King Zedekiah of Jerusalem is Russell Thomas; and Dmitry Belosselskiy is the High Priest of Jerusalem, Zaccaria.
So let me say right off the bat, that although it is packed with drama and suitably excessive costumes and scenery, this is not one of my favorite Verdi operas (too much going on; not the compact dramatic heft of his more mature works) – but nevertheless it is Verdi (albeit very early Verdi), and so it certainly has some wonderful music – and of course, the most famous opera chorus on earth – the Hebrew Chorus “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (Fly, thought, on golden wings) which includes such moving lines as “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” (O my country, so beautiful, and lost). It was thought to have resonated most particularly with Italians of the time (1842) who were part of the Risorgimento, or the movement to free Italy (from the Austrians) and unify it under King Victor Emmanuel II). At any rate, this opera – and especially “Va pensiero” – was the young Verdi’s first great success.
Nabucco takes some liberties with biblical history, and the characters, other than Nabucco himself, are dramatic inventions. The story as a whole, however, stays close to events as they are related in Jewish scriptures: Jeremiah, as well as 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Daniel, and the Psalms. It recollects the period of Babylonian captivity after the loss of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Each act has a subtitle and a trenchant Bible quote to help us keep track of where we are, and so we have Act 1: Jerusalem – ‘Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I shall deliver this city into the hand of the King of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire’ (Jeremiah 21:10). In this act we meet the principals, get a glimpse of their stories and their current predicaments, and watch as Nabucco makes a gigantic conflagration out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Basically, Ismaele’s diplomatic mission to Babylon has failed. He was imprisoned there, but helped to escape by Fenena, the King’s youngest daughter who followed him to Jerusalem and promptly got herself captured by the Hebrews. The almost obligatory operatic love triangle here is between Ismaele, Fenena and her sister, Abigaille, who also loves him.
The Babylonians are invading Jerusalem and the High Priest Zaccaria hopes that his prisoner, Fenena, will be the Hebrew’s ace in the hole (to borrow a phrase from last night’s Rat Pack Rigoletto). Because Fenena loves Ismaele, she has embraced the Jewish religion. Because he loves her, he tries to return the favor she did him back in Babylon by releasing her from captivity in Jerusalem. As you might imagine, that does not ingratiate Ismaele to the Hebrews (he is cursed as a traitor), nor Fenena to Abigaille who is plotting to have herself crowned Queen of Babylon by denouncing Fenena as traitor.
Act 2: The Impious One – Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked’ (Jeremiah 30:23). In this act, we are back in Babylon after the destruction of the Temple and the Hebrews are now captives. Fenena has been appointed regent while Nabucco is off subduing more Israelites. Abigaille has discovered that she was passed over as regent because she was adopted by Nabucco and not his natural child, but the child of a slave. Along with the High Priest of Baal, she plots to spread rumors of Nabucco’s death and Fenena’s treason so that she will be crowned instead. And in fact, she is just about to crown herself when the furious Nabucco appears and snatches the crown away from her. Placing it on his own head he declares, “Non son più re, son dio” (I am no longer King! I am God!”). There is a huge crash of thunder and lightening, Nabucco falls to the ground and promptly loses his senses (this is in the Bible – God does not appreciate blasphemy). The crown falls from his head and is picked up by Abigaille, who pronounces herself ruler of the Babylonians.
Act 3: The Prophecy – ‘Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein’. (Jeremiah 50:39). Presumably, the “wild beasts” are Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal. Seeking to enhance her legitimacy, Abigaille tricks the now insane Nabucco into signing a death warrant for the captive Israelites. After signing it, he suddenly realizes that Abigaille also means to execute Fenena, who is now an Israelite. He searches his garments in vain for the document that proves Abigaille is not his natural daughter, but she produces it herself and tears it to bits in front of him. He is left to impotently plead in vain for Fenena’s life. Along the banks of the Euphrates, the Israelites rest from another day of forced labor in captivity and turn their thoughts to their homeland in the famous “Va pensiero.” Zaccaria, however, encourages them to keep their faith: God will destroy Babylon.
Act 4: The Broken Idol – ‘Baal is confounded, Merodach is broken pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.’ (Jeremiah 50:2). Nabucco watches from his window as Fenena and the Israelites are being led to their execution. In one last desperate attempt to save her, he prays to the God of the Israelites asking for forgiveness and promising to convert to Judaism himself and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem if his prayers to save Fenena are answered. Again, we are treated to the blinding flash. Nabucco is restored – his strength and reason intact. He summons his loyal soldiers. Fenena’s beautiful aria of acceptance of martyrdom “Va! La palma del martirio” (Go, win the palm of martyrdom) gives Nabucco just enough time to rush in, destroy the idol of Baal, and restore the Israelites to freedom. …… and (except Abigaille who poisons herself) they all lived happily ever after – or at least until the next opera.
1. Placido Domingo as Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.
2. Jamie Barton as Fenena and Russell Thomas as Ismaele in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.
3. The destruction of the Temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.
4. Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Met. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
5. The Hebrew Chorus from the Met’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Photo: Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.
6. Placido Domingo performing in Verdi’s ‘Nabucco,’ at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.