Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Opera and religion: assorted thoughts on Nabucco

Persian warriors depicted on the Ishtar Gate (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)
I apologize, Gentle Readers, if it seems less than gracious to emerge from blog silence with such a weighty topic in tow. But here I am, seething with thoughts! Nabucco being one of the first operas on the Met's fall schedule, I thought it was high time I got to know more of it than "Va, pensiero." I did so thanks to a musically brilliant performance from La Scala, under Muti, with Renato Bruson as the titular king, and Ghena Dimitrova an astonishing Abigaille (DVD.) The production was a curious (if undeniably, even excitingly grand) affair, with costumes and decor appearing to be inspired by Assyrian art and architecture, possibly descriptive passages from the Old Testament, possibly medieval representations of biblical scenes, possibly nineteenth-century Orientalist fantasies, and almost certainly Star Trek. The cumulative effect was visually stunning; the architecture, especially, was gorgeous. But there were huge amounts of exploration not being done. It seems to me that, even before discussing possibilities for complicating Verdi's drama, acknowledging the ambiguities and complexities inherent in it would be a herculean task for any director. If you feel like bearing with me while I mull over some of these ambiguities and complexities, Gentle Readers, read on!

Whether one views religion as representing the attempts of humanity to engage with the eternal and the infinite, and with the world sub specie aeternitatis, or the attempts of humanity to avoid confronting mortality, and one's responsibilities to the world in an all-too-finite existence, it's far too juicy a dramatic subject to avoid in the world of opera. Nabucco (my rudimentary acquaintance with which I again stress) seems to me to be a particularly juicy, and problematic example. Abigaille prays at the end to "the Lord who lifts up the afflicted," but most of the invocations of the Deity over the course of the opera involve requests for him to smite the enemies of those who claim an identity as his people. The Babylonians invoke their gods far less: might is a convincing argument for right. True, there is a High Priest of Baal, and Zaccaria (the High Priest on the Israelite side) prays that the "idols" of the opposition may be overthrown. But the Babylonian religious figures seem to be part of a "purely" political establishment. In actual terms, the situation among Verdi's Israelites may not be that different, but there is a great deal more invocation of smiting, grace, or martyrdom, depending on the situation.

Essays could be and have been written about Verdi's own religious beliefs, and attitudes towards the institutional church. Bearing this in mind as background, though, I'll confine myself to looking at the characters in this opera, and what sort of picture they leave us with. First, there's Zaccaria: most of this bass's arias anticipate divine smiting, without offering much in the way of helpful advice to his people. He does advise a convert to embrace martyrdom, but I think a production would have to work to establish him as a spiritual counselor worthy of respect before this came across as moving. Alternatively, it could establish him as a fanatic whose militaristic worldview brings devastating consequences to those who follow him as a teacher. Then we have Ismaele, leader of the Israelite armies. Like Radames in Aida, he's one corner of a love triangle involving a captured princess, and a powerful woman who wants him, and means to have him. Other than that, he's a bit of a cipher. Fenena is the sweet and demure captured princess. Inevitably, this distressed damsel converts. Daughter of Nabucco, she is his appointed heir, and briefly claims royal power when he is believed dead. Fenena comes within an inch of embracing martyrdom, but gets to embrace matrimony instead. Yawn... except: what about that claim to royal power, and her tenacity when Abigaille attempts to usurp it? Her conversion takes place when she is restored to power, and the actions she takes as a consequence are seen as political treason. Clearly, though, her own views on religion and politics are such that she expected to confess Judaism and reign over Babylon simultaneously. Hmm.

Now we come to the characters I find most interesting: Nabucco and Abigaille. Abigaille is, in many ways, a stock villain: she is revealed to be descended from slaves, rather than the emperor; she is a woman who claims power, and military power at that; she pursues the object of her affections in an unseemly way; she mocks her fallen enemy (Nabucco.) Finally, she refuses to convert, and commits suicide. As if that weren't a didactic end! But: although Ismaele is dismayed by this warlike woman, Verdi doesn't seem to be. Her moving and dramatic scene at the beginning of Act II sets out the fact that she refuses to let the accident of her birth debar her from the power she has always exercised with such power. Poignantly, she meditates on the lost possibility of having her love requited by Ismaele... but then refuses to pine or to try to punish him. She pleads (in vain) with Nabucco to treat her as a daughter. She gets exciting, near-impossible music. And she gets the name of Abigail, the woman who famously persuaded King David to break his oath and show mercy to an enemy (medieval canonists loved that one... but I digress.) What's this Babylonian princess doing with the name of a biblical heroine?

Then there's Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) himself. His achievements as a ruler are part of the backstory (and could be quite literally part of the backdrop: Hanging Gardens, anyone? Ishtar Gate?) but we see him mostly as a ruler in crisis. The military successes of Act I are succeeded in Act II by an act of hubris which leads to divine smiting (not specifically called for, as a matter of fact) and his insanity. Since he's been rumored dead, this could be staged as a case of his physical weakness and feverish delirium being taken advantage of by political opportunists. His affection for his daughter, Fenena, is a constant even in his insanity, and (I think) deeply touching. His conversion is, in part at least, a desperate attempt to bargain with whatever gods may be out there for her life. The music establishes him as an intelligent and spirited leader, capable of nobility and generosity as well as arrogance. He orders the statue of Baal destroyed at the conclusion of the opera, but that is the only apparent violence attendant on his conversion: the Israelites are released from captivity and peace is achieved with religious concord. Of course, the staging could imply that Nabucco merely switches over to religiously oppressing his own people instead of someone else's.

So what? So: I think Verdi's music demands more than a stand-and-sing, Sunday School staging. The morals of this story may seem simplistic, but the characters Verdi gives us are anything but. And here's a bit of my personal creed: if religion and belief are going to be compelling in art--or, come to that, meaningful in life--simplistic is one thing they cannot be. Maybe that is why Zaccaria's intonations ring false to me. (To state the obvious, the most elegantly straightforward religious teachings are sometimes the most fiercely debated; take 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.') I don't think "Va, pensiero" can be cynical; if the religion of Nabucco is treated as empty spectacle or propaganda, how do we treat the conviction of the Israelites: as pathetically deluded, or as noble despite misdirection? Is Nabucco's conversion the result of psychological pressure on a sick and imprisoned old man, or is it genuine? If the production contrasts Zaccaria's warlike stance with Nabucco's radical peacemaking, what are the implications for their respective "success" in following the God they both, at the end, profess to worship? The intersection of religious questions with the issues of gender and power in the opera is a subject deserving of lengthy consideration itself. The choices for how a modern production relates Abigaille and Fenena to the ancient patriarchies portrayed, the religions portrayed, and the opera's nineteenth-century context, are dizzying in their multiplicity. With this overlong and yet incomplete set of reflections I leave you, Gentle Readers, together with pointers towards other considerations of staging operas with complex religious associations: a review of Willy Decker's production of Moses und Aron at Definitely the Opera, and thoughts on Dialogues des Carmelites from Likely Impossibilities, here and here. Please do chime in with your own comments, Gentle Readers; you can even mention Parsifal, though the reasons I think that is a different cup of tea would make another blog post, possibly even longer than this one.


  1. Now I really want to see Nabucco again. It's been years. I thought that opera was lost to high camp... should check some of the more recent productions, see how it's doing.

  2. What generally interests me about virtually any (non-Shakespeare) Verdi opera is how he takes any political situation and manages to work strong female characters into the story. Unlike modern day composers, Verdi never forgets that opera is about women singing. Whether or not this works smoothly doesn't much seem to concern him. It means nothing that they are completely invented.

  3. @DTO Do you subscribe to The Opera Critic? It has records of where the opera's been performed in the past decade, and photo evidence of "high camp" galore. It has also revealed to me that Peter Konwitschny did a production of Nabucco! (For Dresden, in '07.) Will hare off in search of more photos and German reviews of that the next time my conscience lets me off from real work.

    @Dr. B. So many of Verdi's female characters are fascinating, aren't they? Types and individuals alike, and then those, like Abigaille, who insist on being individuals despite an apparently rigid role. Even and perhaps especially, as you note, in political situations. Do you know of the academic "state of the question" on gender in Verdi operas? Re: "opera being about women singing" (! and also ?) have you read Wendy Heller's Emblems of Eloquence? Zerbinetta recommended it to me and I have been passing on the recommendation, as it were, ever since.

  4. L: I'll look forward to that if you find it, whenever some time opens, no rush. (Not a subscriber to The OC, but really should)

  5. As a Wendy Hiller fan, I don't know how I missed it.

  6. i go to see nabucco in the theatre in our town in october:))), must read this post before:)

  7. You don't by chance happen to teach Sunday School in addition to all your other academic Aufgaben? It might be the case that some of your thoughts might be a shade controversial in that setting. Not that I can recall with much specificity seeing as I was not invariably riveted on those instances I did attend. Perhaps it would have been otherwise had these sorts of considerations been on offer. Then again you couldn't pay me to go to an opera or concert back than either so I dunno.

    As to Verdi's women it seems to me unfortunate that some of the slightly less assertive ones happen to have particularly beautiful music in operas I especially love, Otello, Don Carlo, Boccanegra. I might go to a couple of Nabs this year and it seem further study might be an order and this is a fascinating start.

    Incidentally, I know you've been busy and I don't imagine you've been as fastidious in taking advantage of the wonderful Footbaw delicacies as perhaps you could be but with the opening of the Met season fast approaching I thought I might direct you to a small item I spotted on Bayerische Rundfunk (can't post the link for some reason - go to Alle Sendungen in the Mediathek - its the first item in the Bs): a rather briefbut not at all uninteresting piece on the "High Performance Sport of Opera Singing" featuring Jonas, Anja H, Piotr Bezcala and the Lucy-despised KS Christa Ludwig. Brief musical samples abound and the program ends on something of an ... ahem ... "high note" (sorry) featuring two of the above mentioned.

  8. @DTO Apparently the Konwitschny production premiered in '96; internet reviews of revivals don't have much detail on it (that I've found) other than that it's "modernized." Seeking will continue.

    @Dr. B. This is by a musicologist by the name of Wendy Heller, no connection to the marvelous Dame Wendy, I'm afraid. Though I would love to know her thoughts on opera, as well...

    @asperias Enjoy!

    @marcillac Hee! I don't teach Sunday School currently, although I have done so in the past, for seven- and eight-year-olds. The story of the Good Samaritan was a favorite, I'm happy to say.

    Elisabetta doesn't have much opportunity for assertion, it's true, but I like to think she has a formidable backbone. She has such unflinching clarity in the way she sticks to the consequences of political marriage, and the opening phrases of "Tu che la vanita" are so fierce. No arguments as to the exquisiteness of Amelia and Desdemona's music... now that you mention it, I realize that I have made up a fair bit of assertive backstory for Amelia in my head. Oops?

    Thanks so much for the tip on the "Hochleistungssport" program!! I had watched it shortly after it first aired (following a tip from a German reader) but I didn't know it was archived and available! Much rejoicing!


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