Nabucco, Baths of Caracalla
Before he resolved to write Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi was in a dark place. Having already suffered the loss of his two infant children, the death of his first wife, Margherita, in the June of 1840 and the failure of his new opera, Un Giorno di Regno, the following September, nearly broke him.
A chance meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, the manager of La Scala, during which he offered an uninterested Verdi a new commission, ended with the impresario refusing to take no for an answer. Accounts of what happened next may have been romanticised, but legend has it that the libretto for Nabucco, now in Verdi’s hands, fell open at the words Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate (Hasten thoughts on golden wings) that resulted in the opera’s most celebrated music.
Nabucco is a tale set in the distant biblical past. Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians and the Israelites are taken prisoner. But Fenena, the daughter of Nabucco, the Babylonian King, is in love with one of the Israelites, Ismaele. Placed in charge of Babylon by Nabucco as he goes off to wage more battles, Fenena releases the captives while her jealous half-sister, Abigaille, plots to seize power for herself.
When Nabucco unexpectedly returns to Babylon only to lose his mind, a consequence of deluding himself that he is a god, Abigaille makes her move and fools her father, in his enfeebled state, into signing an order for Fenena’s execution. Only if Nabucco can recover his sanity will he be able to thwart Abigaille’s treachery.
Premiered in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala on 9 March 1842, Nabucco was an unprecedented success. There was only time for it to be performed on eight occasions in its first run, but it was revived the following season, clocking up another fifty-seven nights before the year was out.
Nabucco was the work that confirmed Verdi’s brilliance for depicting the loves and lives of individuals convulsed by the world that surrounds them. The ancient Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla) in Rome, now used as an outdoor arena, provide the perfect setting for a performance by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma of Verdi’s first great operatic epic.