Verdi wrote two high dramatic soprano roles: Abigaille in Nabucco, and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. These roles are close to impossible, which is why these works are seldom heard. However, in the past there were sopranos who could sing these roles, and I am going to show you two of them. We will focus on Nabucco. Anita Cerquetti was an amazing singer in the early 1950s. She had bel canto training, and she even sang Abigaille’s aria almost as if it were bel canto. The other singer whom you will hear is Callas. This is Callas in her prime, and she takes a very different approach to the role than does Cerquetti. I will place links to the performances first, and then some background on the opera so that you can understand why the character feels as she does.
Ben io t’invenni, o fatal scritto!… in seno
Mal ti celava il rege, onde a me fosse
Di scorno!… Prole Abigail di schiavi!
Ebben!… sia tale! Di Nabucco figlia,
Qual l’Assiro mi crede,
Che sono io qui?… peggior che schiava!
Affida il rege alla minor Fenena,
Mentr’ei fra l’armi a sterminar Giudea
L’animo intende!… Me gli amori altrui
Invia dal campo a qui mirar!… Oh iniqui
Tutti, e più folli ancor!… d’Abigaille
Mal conoscete il core…
Su tutti il mio furore
Piombar vedrete!… Ah sì! cada Fenena…
Il finto padre!… il regno!…
Su me stessa rovina, o fatal sdegno!
Anch’io dischiuso un giorno
Ebbi alla gioia il core;
Tutto parlarmi intorno
Udia di santo amore;
Piangeva all’altrui pianto,
Soffria degli altri al duol;
Ah! chi del perduto incanto
Mi torna un giorno sol?
Happy chance I found you, oh fatal document! In his bosom
the King tried to hide you, in order to prove
my shame!… Abigail, issue of slaves!
Very well, let it be so! … Daughter of Nabucco
such as the Assyrians take me to be,
what am I here? Worse than a slave!
the King confides to the younger Fenena,
whilst he, among his soldiers, bends his mind to exterminate Judea!
Me he sends from the battlefield here
to observe the loves of others! Oh, wretches all,
and even more deluded! Little do you know
the heart of Abigail!
Upon everyone you will see
my fury fall! Ah yes! Let Fenena fall …
my pretended father … the whole realm!
Upon me hurl thyself, oh fatal anger!
I, too, once opened
my heart to happiness!
Everything around me
I heard speak of holy love;
I wept at others’ tears,
suffered at others’ pain;
ah! to that lost enchantment
who will return me one day?
Nabucco is an Italian-language opera in four acts composed in 1841 by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Temistocle Solera. The libretto is based on biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel and the 1836 play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Francis Cornu, given at La Scala in 1836, was a more important source for Solera than the play itself. Under its original name of Nabucodonosor, the opera was first performed at La Scala in Milan on 9 March 1842.
Nabucco is the opera which is considered to have permanently established Verdi’s reputation as a composer. He commented that “this is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star”.
It follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (in English, Nebuchadnezzar II). The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known number from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” / “Fly, thought, on golden wings”, a chorus which is regularly given an encore in many opera houses when performed today.
Time: 587 BC
Place: Jerusalem and Babylon
Act 1: Jerusalem
‘Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I shall deliver this city into the hand of the King of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire’ (Jeremiah 21:10)
The Israelites pray as the Babylonian army advances on their city (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti” / “Throw down and destroy all festive decorations”). The High Priest Zaccaria tells the people not to despair but to trust in God (“D’Egitto là su i lidi” / “On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses”). The presence of a hostage, Fenena, younger daughter of Nabucco, King of Babylon, may yet secure peace (“Come notte a sol fulgente” / “Like darkness before the sun”). Zaccaria entrusts Fenena to Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and a former envoy to Babylon. Left alone, Fenena and Ismaele recall how they fell in love when Ismaele was held prisoner by the Babylonians, and how Fenena helped him to escape to Israel. Nabucco’s supposed elder daughter, Abigaille, enters the temple with Babylonian soldiers in disguise. She, too, loves Ismaele. Discovering the lovers, she threatens Ismaele: if he does not give up Fenena, Abigaille will accuse her of treason. If Ismaele returns Abigaille’s love, however, Abigaille will petition Nabucco on the Israelites’ behalf. Ismaele tells Abigaille that he cannot love her and she vows revenge. Nabucco enters with his warriors (“Viva Nabucco” / “Long live Nabucco”). Zaccaria defies him, threatening to kill Fenena if Nabucco attacks the temple. Ismaele intervenes to save Fenena, which removes any impediment from Nabucco destroying the temple. He orders this, while Zaccaria and the Israelites curse Ismaele as a traitor.
Act 2: The Impious One
‘Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked’ (Jeremiah 30:23)
Scene 1: Royal apartments in Babylon
Nabucco has appointed Fenena regent and guardian of the Israelite prisoners, while he continues the battle against the Israelites. Abigaille has discovered a document that proves she is not Nabucco’s real daughter, but the daughter of slaves. She reflects bitterly on Nabucco’s refusal to allow her to play a role in the war with the Israelites and recalls past happiness (“Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” / “I too once opened my heart to happiness”). The High Priest of Baal informs Abigaille that Fenena has released the Israelite captives. He plans for Abigaille to become ruler of Babylon, and with this intention has spread the rumour that Nabucco has died in battle. Abigaille determines to seize the throne (“Salgo già del trono aurato” / “I already ascend the [bloodstained] seat of the golden throne”).