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Who is Nabucco?: The Story Behind Verdi’s Opera

Updated: 7 days ago

By Jane Fitzpatrick

AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Author


Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco tells the story of the Babylonian King who conquered Jerusalem and sent the Jewish people into exile. The work premiered at Teatro alla Scala in 1842 and resoundingly set Verdi’s career as a composer into motion.


As a character, Nabucco represents the historical and biblical figure Nebuchadnezzar. Successful in his military endeavors and honored for his building projects, Nebuchadnezzar was the longest-reigning ruler of the Babylonians and captured Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. For this victory, however, and for the collapse of the First Temple built by Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar became known in Jewish history as a destroyer and a royal captor rather than a victorious hero.


Nebuchadnezzar (Source: World History Encyclopedia)

Despite his ruthless crimes against the Jewish people, Nabucco is not the opera’s ultimate villain. Even in Jewish tradition, Nebuchadnezzar is often seen as a servant or critical instrument of God’s work and a personal witness to God’s divine power (see Book of Jeremiah). Nebuchadnezzar and his rule over Jerusalem, as depicted by the opera, are featured in Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Daniel, and the Psalms, in addition to several archaeological records of his existence and endeavors.


While historical artifacts support the reign and renowned power of Nebuchadnezzar, and Biblical documentations suggest that he may have felt compelled to convert to monotheism, much of the opera’s main cast and its dramatic plot are fictional.


Abigaille, Nabucco’s adopted daughter, is the vengeful villain, while Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter by blood, is an inspiring heroine who boldly frees the Hebrew slaves against her father’s command. Both of these female characters, along with the rest of the main cast, excluding Nabucco, are fictional. While they certainly bring romance and political intrigue to the story, these roles are distinct facets of Temistocle Solera’s libretto, rather than the Bible or any other historical records.


One might say that Verdi’s opera is a work of interpretive religious art, as it champions the God of the Jewish people as well as Nabucco’s  — and Abigaille’s — conversion to their faith in him. God’s dominating power and Nabucco’s submission signify the opera’s happy yet historically inaccurate ending wherein the Hebrew slaves are freed and terror reigns no more. The opera concludes with the King’s declaration of their freedom to return home and rebuild the temple he destroyed, but in truth, the return of the Jews and the construction of the Second Temple took place under King Cyrus of the Persian empire a few decades after the first temple was destroyed.


A singular quality of the opera and its reception that must be given special notice, however, in addition to its compelling support of Jewish tradition, is its perceived representation of nationalism. Verdi’s Italian audiences felt a shared sense of patriotism that was displayed by the chorus of Hebrew slaves lamenting for their homeland, particularly in their song, “Va, pensiero.” The Risorgimento, or the “Resurgence,” was a political and social movement during the 19th century that had Italian citizens yearning for unification and freedom from foreign governance. As the movement progressed, Italy evolved and modernized. The movement’s legacy carried on through the centuries, as did Verdi’s musical work. Even today, “Va, pensiero” is often featured at major events and through diverse artistic platforms.


Nebuchadnezzar’s story continues to be told and interpreted in various mediums and contexts, making Verdi’s Nabucco a natural regular across the world stages.

 

Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.

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Thank you for introducing this storied opera. There is a reason why few works of art such as Nabucco are part of the canon, and it is not only because of the quality of music or the messaging but mainly because they fully embody human emotions and passions that merely fluctuate in intensity and form of expression over time, yet never truly change.

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What a nice coincidence. This very morning I ordered a ticket for the 18 June performance of Nabucco at the Vienna State Opera. Not one of the performers is known to me, but Vienna usually puts competent artists on its stage, and you can be pretty confident it will be superbly played.


You're right, of course, that the story is the purest fiction, borrowing the name of Nebuchadnezzar II for the purpose of story-telling. Nonetheless, considering how early we are in Verdi's career, this is a very fine piece of work. And especially, it is not conceivable to me that anyone can hear Va pensiero without choking up, even if Italian history is a book with seven seals to them.…


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