Culture Magazine

Opera and Religion: Assorted Thoughts on Nabucco

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
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.

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