Verdi’s first real success.

Giuseppe Verdi was 28 years when he wrote Nabucco. He came from two previous operas that premiered at La Scala… A well-received Oberto, Conte di San Bonifaci and a complete fiasco with the comedy Un giorno di regno. The manager of the Milanese opera house, Bartolomeo Merelli wouldn’t doubt Verdi’s capabilities for a second though and continued his collaboration with the composer.

As it turned out, he would be correct in doing so, as Nabucco was a huge success. After the premiere, it played for another 75 times before 1842 ended at La Scala alone. It was the single opera that confirmed the success of the Emilian composer. And it was a catapult to a career that would make him the most outstanding opera composer of all time.

From Nabucco in 1842, he wrote no less than 17 operas until 1853, including such titles as Ernani, Attila, Macbeth, Luisa Miller, and the three most played Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata.

Verdi around 1842

Premiere – March 9, 1842, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Composer – Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist – Temistocle Solera

Running Time – Around 2 hours and 7 minutes, plus Intervals

Four Acts

Ouverture – 7 minutes 

Act 1 – ca 35 minutes

Act 2 – ca 32 minutes

Act 3 – ca 28 minutes

Act 4 – ca 25 minutes

In Italian

Main characters

Nabucco, short for Nebuchadnezzar. King of Babylon: Dramatic Baritone

Ismaele. Nephew of the King of Jerusalem: Lyric (or possibly Lyric-Dramatic) Tenor

Zaccaria. High Priest: Bass

Abigaille. Nabucco’s non-legitimate daughter: Dramatic Soprano

Fenena. Nabucco’s legitimate daughter: Lyric Mezzo-soprano

The role of Nabucco was labeled Baritone by Verdi, and that was quite a new thing at the time. Before the beginning of 1800, a similar voice would have been a Bass. Fenena, on the other hand, Verdi has as a Soprano, as the intermediate label between Alto and Soprano wasn’t yet in use. It is a true Mezzo-soprano though, and not a Soprano, although you need good heights. 

Based on the story about the Jewish exile to Babylon as described in the Book of Kings, the Book of Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Daniel. 

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.

The troublesome formation of the Kingdom of Italy.

Italy has an extremely long and rich history. From ancient Greece, over the Roman empire, to the many city-states ruling the peninsula for more than a thousand years… Venice, Genua, Sicily, Naples, Milan, and more. In the mid-1800 the situation was not so rich and impressive though, at least not in the north. Napoleon had conquered all of northern Italy, and after his fall it was held by the Austrians. 

In 1842, when Verdi wrote Nabucco, The nationalist anti-Austrian feeling was palpable. In fact, only a few years later, the first big war of independence would start. And Verdi was a strong advocate for a free Italy. (He actually held a seat in the first-ever Italian Parliament from 1861…). Though not yet active in politics, he somehow introduced his ideas of freedom and unity in his work. This is notable in many ways in Nabucco. 

The story is about the Hebrews being deported and enslaved in Babylonia. But many saw this as a parable for the Italian situation. And when the prisoners in the third act sing the chorus Va Pensiero (… remembering their beloved homeland), that has later been seen as evidence of an expression of defiance and rebellion. In Italy, the significance of that chorus has been discussed for more than 150 years.

The truth is probably that Verdi intended it as an urge for unity and equality rather than for uprisings. The whole first part is unison, the different voices of the choir sing the same melody, as an expression of fellowship and solidarity. The importance of Va Pensiero for Italy as a nation can not be overrated. But it’s possible it became more significant later on, in the 20th century. 


Background – The Opera Nabucco is set in…


The first act is set in Jerusalem, and the second, third, and fourth acts are set in Babylon. The time period is the Hebrew exile as described in the Bible in the 6th century BCE.

Would you like to visit Babylonia (Iraq)?


Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place? 




First Act – Jerusalem

You could almost say that the main character in Nabucco is the chorus. And right at curtain-up, there is a famous scene where the people of Judah are praying to their god for salvation. Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, is closing in on the city with his soldiers ready to kill and pillage like conquering Kings do. 

the greatets bass ever.
Bonaldo Giaiotti. One of the greatest Zaccaria ever.

The high priest, Zaccaria enters. 

 – Have faith, my children…

And he brings forth Fenena, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. With her as random, they will be able to negotiate a truce.

Ismaele enters. He is the nephew of the King of Judah, Zedekiah. With new hope everybody except Ismaele and Fenena exit. And now the complicating issues show. Fenena and Ismael are in love… One the daughter of the tyrant, and the other a Hebrew. Fenena actually helped Ismaele to escape when he was a prisoner in Babylon. 

More problems… Abigail, the other daughter of Nabucco enters with a few Babylonian soldiers disguised as Hebrews. Of course, she too is in love with Ismaele and offers him the salvation of his people if he just returns her love for him. He refuses though. Meanwhile, Fenena, although Babylonian, prays to the Hebrew god.

There’s another beautiful chorus when the terrified Hebrews storm into the temple to seek refuge. The Babylonian King is approaching. When arrived, Zaccaria accuses him:

 – What are you doing? This is the house of god!

But Nabucco answers:

 – What god?

And Zaccaria pulls out his trump card. With a knife, he threatens to kill the daughter of the King.

And here, Verdi throws in a beautiful, and very typical ensemble. All six main characters (That includes Anna, who is Zaccaria’s sister.) together with the chorus sing their own point of view of what’s happening. To threaten to kill Fenena could have been a good move by the Hebrews. But unfortunately, they didn’t know about Ismaele’s and Fenena’s love.

So Ismaele steps in, saves his girl, but condemns his people. The final stretta is very effective. 

 – Mio furore, non più costretto…

Second Act – The Royal Palace in Babylon

Back in Babylon, the Hebrews are imprisoned. Abigail finds herself alone, desolated, desperate… She has found out that she is not the legitimate daughter of Nabucco. Instead, she is just a slave brought up by him in the palace. And as if that’s not enough, Nabucco has appointed Fenena, who is younger than Abigail, his successor… And Fenena has decided to free all the Hebrews. She sings:

 – Ben io t’invenni o fatal scritto…

Actually, she sings for ten minutes straight, two arias and an orchestra recitative which are among the most difficult in the whole opera literature.

Zaccaria’s counterpart, the Babylonian high priest (who is not very keen on the idea of freeing the Hebrews…) proposes a coup. Abigail will take power. The priest has already spread the news that Nabucco is dead and Baylon needs a queen. Filled with rage she sings the very dramatic:

Ghena Dimitrova. One of the greatest Abigail ever.

– Salgo già del trono aurato (I will ascend the throne, and from there, my vengeance will strike…)

New scene.

Zaccaria sings a beautiful prayer for God to send them a helper in their dire situation (Fenena). This aria is interesting. Verdi writes a string orchestra with a few entries of violins, violas, and double basses. But the main score is played by 6 solo cellos.

 – Vieni o Levita. 

Then, Ismaele is challenged by the Levites for having betrayed his people. (Remember he freed Fenena when she was a hostage…?) This is another very typical Verdi chorus.

 – Il maledetto non ha fratelli… (The cursed one has no brothers…)

And now things happen fast…

Because Fenena has converted to Judaism. And suddenly Ismaele’s treason somehow changes into him having saved a Hebrew sister. Then Abigail enters with the death warrant for all the Hebrews. After that, Nabucco surprisingly arrives too. And with everybody on stage, Verdi has them sing another very typical ensemble:

 – S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale… (we are facing a fatal wrath…)

But Nabucco isn’t in his right mind. He rejects the Babylonian god, and then he rejects the Hebrew god… 

 – Non son più re, son dio!!! (I am no longer a King… I am god!!!)

But the real god smacks him with a bolt of lightning. Not enough to kill him, but to remove the crown from his head. And of course, Abigail immediately snatches it for herself.

the 7th wonder of the world
The hanging gardens of babylon

Third Act

The hanging gardens

Abigail has ascended the throne. She is in full control. Nabucco enters but is delusional. He still thinks he is the legitimate King. His madness together with his daughter’s ambitions has made him powerless. Abigail sends away everybody, and then there’s a long scene, a sort of Father-daughter showdown.

 – Donna, chi sei? (Woman who are you?)

The King is confused…

Abigail tricks Nabucco to sign the death sentence for the Hebrews. But then he remembers that Fenena has converted, and he begs Abigail for mercy. But the new queen is immovable. After that, she brings forth the document that shows her origins as a slave. She tears it into pieces and throws it at Nabucco. The King is completely helpless. He is sent back to his quarters as a prisoner.

The shores of the Euphrates

And so we have arrived at the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves:

 – Va pensiero… (Fly, my thoughts, on wings of gold…)

Awaiting their death, they long for their homeland, far away.


But Zaccaria refuses to give in. As the leader of his people, he still claims that their god Jehova shall punish their enemies. He sings:

 –  Del futuro nel buio discerno…

This can be a tricky aria if sung by a bass-baritone or a baritone. You need an F2 with good volume. 

Fourth Act

The Royal palace

Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness.
Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness.

Nabucco is still confused. He thinks he is back fighting the Hebrews at Jerusalem. When he understands that his only daughter is brought to her execution, he realizes that he is a prisoner and can do absolutely nothing about it. In his deep desolation, he prays to the Hebrew god:

 – Dio di Giuda! (… Take me away from so my trouble, and I will burn the Babylon idols.)

And suddenly his loyal chief of the guards Abdallo enters with his soldiers. They are there to free him and help him take back his throne. 

The hanging gardens

The Hebrews are facing their death and Fenena sings her only real aria:

 – Oh dischiuso è il firmamento… 

Nabucco arrives with his soldiers, frees the Jews, promises to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and orders the destruction of the idol of Bel. But miraculously the statue is shattered before their eyes. Everybody falls down on their knees to pray to Jehova.

Now, Abigail enters. She has taken poison but before dying she wants to ask forgiveness from Fenena. She sings:

 – Su me… morente… esanime…

She dies, and Zaccaria proclaims Nabucco shall be a glorious King as long as he serves Jehova. 

Things to look out for.

First act

0 minutes – Gli aredi festivi. The terrorized people sing out their fear.

22 minutes – Lo vedeste fulminando. The Hebrews storm into the temple to seek refuge.

24 minutes – Nabucco enters the temple.

31 minutes – Ismaele saves Fenena.

Immediately after – Mio furor non più costretto. The final. 

Second Act

9 minutes – Salgo già del trono aurato. Abigail sings her most famous (and furious) aria.

Otto Nicolai

14  minutes – Vieni o Levita. Zaccaria’s aria.

19 minutes – Il maledetto non ha fratelli. Chorus.

23 minutes – S’app

29 minutes – God sends a lightning bolt onto Nabucco.

Third Act

6 minutes – Donna chi sei. The long scene with Abigail and Nabucco begins.

10 minutes – Abigail straps the document that shows she is a slave.

18 minutes – Va pensiero. The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

25 minutes – Del futuro nel buio discerno. Zaccaria’s aria.

Fourth Act

4 minutes – Dio di Giuda! Nabucco’s prison-aria.

14 minutes – Oh dischiuso è il firmamento! Fenena’s aria.

When Nabucco enters after Fenena’s aria, the Bel idol should crumble. Check out how they do that.

21 minutes – Su me… morente… esanime. Abigail’s last aria.

A little something about the voice of Abigail.

Abigail is one of the most difficult parts for soprano out there. The voice needs to be a full dramatic soprano with a notable punch and very good heights. But, as that isn’t hard enough, it also needs very good agility. Much of the score is coloratura in nature, and a good part is also a capella, or at least with very little orchestra to support, which makes it all much more delicate and difficult… And she sings a lot, being on stage more or less from the beginning to the end. 

In Ben io t’invenni o fatal scritto at the beginning of the second act, there’s a drop of two full octaves from C6 to C4. Prode guerrier at her very first entrance on stage starts at a long B3, which is very low for a soprano. And there are some very high notes in pianissimo as if it was intended for a light lyric soprano. In short, Abigail is almost impossible to sing. You would need three or four sopranos of different qualities. And the difficulty setting up Nabucco can be attributed to the difficulty of finding a good Abigail.  

Fun Facts

  • The first ever Abigail was sung by Giuseppina Strepponi. She and Giuseppe Verdi wed in 1859, and they stayed together for the remaining of the composer’s long life.
  • Otto Nicolai hated the opera. He too had been offered the story by Merelli but refused. The incredible success Verdi’s version gained, probably left him with a bitter aftertaste. 
  • From 1859 until the formation of the new Italian Kingdom, Verdi got a whole new fan base. His name was interpreted as Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia… Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy. So when the rebels painted graffiti or chanted “Viva V.E.R.D.I” it wasn’t just a strong interest in music and art. It was a call to action to free the nation. 
  • After the total fiasco with Un giorno di regno at La Scala, Verdi thought he was finished as a musician and composer. So when Merelli asked him to have a look at the libretto for Nabucco he wasn’t at all inspired. Once home, he just threw the sheets carelessly. Fortunately, he missed the table, and the papers fell to the floor. When he picked them up, he got a glance at the text for Va pensiero. And that made him change his mind. 
  • Nebuchadnezzar in the bible is stripped of his power and sent into the wild for seven years. His reason then returned and he accepted the Hebrew god. “Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to base.” There are no historical records that show that Nebuchadnezzar ever went mad, nor converted to Judaism.

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.