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Intrigue in Babylon: Verdi's 'Nabucco'

If we can believe Giuseppe Verdi, if it weren't for one chance encounter, early in his career, he might never have written a single great opera.

In 1840, Verdi's second opera, King for a Day, premiered at Milan's historic opera house, La Scala. The piece was a dismal failure, and it came at a time when the composer's emotional health was already fragile. His wife, Margherita, had died earlier that year, and the couple had recently lost both of their children. Following the failed opera, in the throws of depression, Verdi decided to give up music altogether.

Then, the composer later reported, he unexpectedly ran into La Scala's impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, on the streets of Milan. Merelli had a new libretto on his hands — called Nabucco — and talked a reluctant Verdi into looking at it. Verdi, as the story goes, took the libretto home and put it aside, finally reading it late at night when he had trouble sleeping. He happened to open the pages to the words of a now-famous chorus: "Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate " — "Go, thoughts, on wings of gold." Drawn in by those words, he agreed to compose the opera, which became his first unqualified hit.

It's a great story, though Verdi did have a tendency to exaggerate tales of his early career. He once recalled the busy years after Nabucco somewhat bitterly as his "years in the galley." He certainly composed feverishly during that period, but he was hardly working for slave wages. The tremendous success of Nabucco propelled Verdi to a series of triumphs that made him one of the most famous men in Europe, and a true Italian hero.

Still, the story of the opera's genesis somehow rings true. And if Verdi's remarkable creative life began with Nabucco, we might say it ended with it, as well. When Verdi died, in 1901, the immense crowd that gathered for his funeral procession joined a massed choir to sing "Va, pensiero," the chorus that helped launch one of music's most celebrated careers.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Nabucco starring baritone Paolo Gavanelli in the title role, along with tenor Alexander Antonenko and sopranos Maria Guleghina and Daniella Sindram, from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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