It rivals the Marseillaise as the most famous hymn in history, with the difference that it never intended to be one. It is nothing more and nothing less than the chorus from the opera Nabucco, used by the great Giuseppe Verdi at its 1842 premiere in La Scala, to fuel the anger felt by the Milanese public against the Austro-Hungarian oppressor.
The anthem of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon longing for their home, the increasingly distant Promised Land, prompted the Italian people to come out if favor of the Risorgimento, when on Milan’s city walls appeared the acronym VIVA VERDI, which actually meant Vittorio Emanuele King Of Italy. From that moment, it became Italy’s unofficial anthem, and if this were not enough, it accompanied Verdi‘s funeral procession in a spontaneous and famous demonstration of the people´s sorrow at the loss of their most beloved and representative composer.
If the chorus Va pensiero was – and will always be – the anthem of the oppressed, Nabucco marked the consecration of Verdi who, sinking into the deepest sadness after the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, and the death of his young wife Margherita and their two children, had considered leaving music altogether. Bartolomeo Merelli, impresario of the Teatro alla Scala, managed to convince him to compose one more opera. The result was Nabucco, his third opera, and the one where he established his immortal reputation as one of history’s most beloved composers and above all, put an end to the bad fortune that had haunted him.
Born out of pain, Nabucco, showcased its incipient maturity on the Italian melodrama conventions of the time, establishing it as heir to the bel canto tradition, previously represented by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. With the insane King Nebuchadnezzar in the title role, a new voice type, the “Verdi baritone” was consolidated. In the role of the ambitious slave Abigaille, Verdi took the crown left by Bellini‘ Norma, to create a thankless heroine from all points of view, even the vocal, so difficult that it started the decline of the famous soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who soon after became Verdi´s inseparable second wife.
In this unusual duel between baritone and soprano, we also get a glimpse of the upcoming Macbeth and his treacherous Lady. Beyond the priest Zaccaria (a continuation of Rossini ‘s Moses) and the pair of lovers formed by Fenena, legitimate daughter of the Babylonian king in love with the Hebrew Ismaele, the chorus is the constant stage presence that describes the action centered on love, exile, madness, lust for power, revenge and patriotism, a truly explosive cocktail.
Neither the stage nor the recordings have been able to reflect this opera’s exceptional quality. From the great Tito Gobbi´s Nabucco to the more intellectual Renato Bruson and his contemporaries Juan Pons and, especially, Leo Nucci, to the Abigaille of a young Maria Callas – a role she sang only three times – the fierce slave marked the beginning of the end for singers Elena Suliotis and Anita Cerquetti. It has been performed by sopranos as diverse as Amy Shuard, Lauren Flanigan, Leonie Rysanek, Grace Bumbry and the famous recording “come scritto” by Riccardo Muti with a bold Renata Scotto, revealing facets closed to immense voices that occasionally leave their Turandots to sing an Abigaille, but coming out of the embers means falling into the fire.
In recent times, the quintessential Abigaille has been the Ukrainian diva Maria Guleghina, whose presence and imposing voice are awakening great interest in her upcoming debut with the Florida Grand Opera as the central figure in a production of the Washington National Opera, which using trompe l’oeil curtains, offers a glimpse of the past replicating the premiere in 1842 and recreating the exotic orientalism of painters such as Delacroix and Gerome.
Needless to say, the opportunity to hear the Va pensiero live and performed by Guleghina is reason enough to attend, but there is much more. The reasons are well explained by the Valencian master Ramón Tebar – musical director of FGO and the only Spaniard to lead an opera house in the United States – who will be directing the orchestra.
“We are facing the Verdi‘s first great masterpiece, a work extremely appropriate for a city like Miami, this being an opera about the Jewish people and exile. Both Jews and Cubans are such an important part of the South Florida community that I think the theme of the opera, and even more, its famous chorus Va pensiero, will have special resonance for those who identify with the lyrics.”
Nabucco will be staged until February 8th 2014. Tebar adds, “I am proud to have the debut with FGO of several talented local artists such as Cuban singers Nelson Martínez as Nabucco and Mabel Ledo as Fenena. In total, we will have five Hispanic singers in this production, with Dario Solari as the other Nabucco, Martín Nausspaumer as Ismaele, and Betsy Díaz as Anna. In addition, we’ll we have two of the best Abigaille of recent generations, Maria Guleghina, with whom I have shared the stage in the past and who has sung this role in the world’s leading stages, and Susan Neves, who has represented this role on more than 200 occasions. It will be a very special Nabucco.” ■