9 March 2020

Nabucco premieres in Milan

Verdi opera that became a symbol of the Risorgimento


The bill advertising the first staging of Nabucco at La Scala in Milan
The bill advertising the first staging
of Nabucco at La Scala in Milan
The opera Nabucco, with music by Giuseppe Verdi and a libretto by Temistocle Solera, was first performed on this day in 1842 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

The opera contains the famous chorus Va, pensiero, a lament for a lost homeland that many Italians now regard as their unofficial national anthem.

The opera and Verdi himself have become synonymous with the Risorgimento, the period in the 19th century when people worked to free the Italian states of foreign domination and unite them under the leadership of Victor Emmanuel, the King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy.

It is said that during the last years of the Austrian occupation of Lombardia and the Veneto, for example, that Italian patriots adopted Viva Verdi as a slogan and rallying call, using the composer’s name as an acronym for 'Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia' - 'Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy'.

On the day of the composer’s funeral in Milan in 1901, a crowd of 300,000 people filled the streets and sang Va, pensiero, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, a moving event that showed how Verdi’s music had helped unite the Italian nation.

But Verdi nearly didn’t take up the offer to compose the music for Nabucco.

Verdi took up the offer to write the  music for Nabucco with reluctance
Verdi took up the offer to write the
music for Nabucco with reluctance
After a terrible two-year period, during which his young wife and two children had all died as a result of illnesses, Verdi had vowed never to compose music again.

During a chance meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, Verdi was given a copy of Solera’s libretto, which had been rejected by another composer.

Verdi later recalled in his memoirs how he took the libretto home, threw it on the table with a violent gesture and it opened up in front of him. Verdi’‘s eye fell on the phrase, ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’  - 'Fly, thought, on golden wings'.

He tried to ignore the libretto but eventually found himself sitting at the piano and setting the words to music.

It is claimed he was still reluctant about working on the score and tried to take the manuscript back to Merelli, but the impresario stuffed the libretto back in Verdi’s pocket, threw him out of his office and locked the door.

Verdi went home and continued to work on the music and by the autumn of 1841 the opera was complete.

Listen to the chorus at Teatro alla Fenice in Venice perform Va, pensiero in a 2010 concert:





The opening performance at La Scala on 9 March 1842 was an immediate success, establishing Verdi as a major composer. The opera is still regularly performed all over the world today.

Verdi's future wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, was a member of the original cast
Verdi's future wife, Giuseppina Strepponi,
was a member of the original cast
The original cast included the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who would later become Verdi's second wife.

Nabucco is named after King Nebuchadnezzar, who featured in the books of Jeremiah and Daniel in the Bible, and the opera follows the plight of the Jews he conquered and exiled. The chorus Va, pensiero - also known as the 'Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves' - captured the feeling of national pride among Italians at the time who were still living under Austrian domination.

In 1981 a journalist proposed replacing Italy’s official national anthem with Va, persiero. This never happened, but the political party Lega Nord - now La Lega - adopted it as its official hymn and the chorus is now sung at all party meetings.

In 2011, after conducting Va, pensiero at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, the conductor Riccardo Muti made a speech protesting about cuts in Italy’s arts budget and then invited the audience to sing along in support of culture and patriotism.

Milan's Teatro alla Scala, one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, is right in the centre of the city
Milan's Teatro alla Scala, one of the world's most prestigious
opera houses, is right in the centre of the city
Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala is in Piazza della Scala in the centre of Milan across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with cafes, shops and restaurants which was built to link Piazza della Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and a few days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, rebuilt in the 1920s by the architect Marcello Piacentini, seats 1600 spectators
Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, rebuilt in the 1920s by the
architect Marcello Piacentini, seats 1600 spectators
Travel tip:

The Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, where conductor Riccardo Muti invited the audience to join in the chorus Va, pensiero in 2011, is a 1600-seat opera house in Piazza Beniamino Gigli. It was originally opened in 1880 as the Costanzi Theatre and has undergone several changes of name and many improvements over the years.

Also on this day:

1454: The birth of explorer Amerigo Vespucci

1809: The birth of statesman and winemaker Bettino Ricasoli

1908: The founding of the Milan football club Internazionale

1948: The birth of politician Emma Bonino


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