Monday, April 28, 2008

Verdi Overture to Nabucco

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi’s first major operatic success appeared in the wake of the most difficult time in the composer’s life. In 1838 and 1839, Verdi and his young wife Margherita lost both of their infant children in quick succession (a sadly common circumstance at the time). Tragically, Margherita fell ill and died in the summer of 1840. Then, in September 1840, Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno, was a complete disaster, closing after only one performance. Deeply depressed, the composer was understandably ready to give up on music altogether. But Bartolomeo Merelli, who ran the famed Milan opera house, La Scala, prevailed upon Verdi to write one more opera. The result was Nabucco, an instant commercial and critical triumph upon its premiere in 1842.

Nabucco retells the biblical story of the slavery and eventual exile of the Jews under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. In spite of the dark story, the score is full of memorable melodies. In fact, one of Verdi’s biggest hits is the Act III chorus, “Va pensiero,” in which the Hebrew slaves sing wistfully of their lost homeland. Over the course of the 19th century, the tune came to be a popular anthem of the Italian Risorgimento, the political movement that pushed out foreign powers and unified the Italian peninsula as a single kingdom.

Like most of Verdi’s opera overtures, Nabucco is a potpourri of themes, most of which reappear in the opera. After a stately introduction in the brass and a more sinister transition, Verdi spins a gentle variation on “Va pensiero,” heard first in the oboe and clarinet playing in octaves. In the faster music that follows, the overture juxtaposes different themes associated with the Hebrew slaves and with their Babylonian captors, neatly foreshadowing the opera’s central conflict.

-- Troy Peters