“VA, PENCIERO:” VERDI’S ARIA THAT HELPED UNITE ITALY IN 19th CENTURY
When the last sounds of the “Va, penciero” encore died down on the LA Opera stage at the end of the three-hour “Nabucco” opera, I had tears in my eyes. I am sure many others in the audience did, too. There was a momentary pause, a second or two of silence. And then thunderous applause and ovation broke out anew.
After several minutes of a standing ovation, the ensemble of the LA opera, lead by Placido Domingo (tenor), Liudmyla Monastyrska (soprano) and James Conlon (conductor) performed “Va, Pensiero” again as an encore to Verdi’s “Nabucco.”
Monastyrska, the soprano, started singing first, appearing to do so spontaneously. Then Domingo joined her in a duet. Then the chorus also pitched in, followed by the orchestra. It was a musical cascade with the conductor doing his work on the stage rather than in the pit.
At the end, the audience also joined in and sang the last bars with the opera cast and chorus. That was about 3,500 people singing together as one. The encore was followed by another standing ovation by everybody, including the cast and the orchestra.
The same thing happened in January 1901, when Giuseppe Verdi died. At his funeral, Italy wept an sang as one. Almost a quarter of a million people took to the streets, marching to “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco – sung by a massed choir under the baton of celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini.
PRE-SHOW LECTURE BY THE CONDUCTOR
Elizabeth and I learned about that and many other interesting facts about Verdi’s life at the one-hour pre-show lecture we attended by the conductor, James Conlan.
It was only on Wednesday that I began to understand the patriotic significance of this opera to the Italians. The opera is ostensibly about the Hebrew slaves in Babylon in the 6th century BC. But when it premiered in 1842, there was no such thing as the country of Italy. Unlike the Jews in Babylon, the Italians were exiles in their own land, divided by rivalries between the various city states and principalities.
With “Va, pensiero,” Verdi helped create a united Italy – without trying to do so. This aria has become an unofficial Italian anthem. It is something that every kid in Italy can sing, according to the conductor.
Which is not necessarily true of the official national anthem. They come and go with the change in the winds of history and various kings, rulers and dictators. But Verdi’s Nabucco stayed, like an anchor forever grounding the Italian people to their country.
Here’s an excerpt from a BBC story published on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.
“Can you imagine any country today in national mourning over the death of a classical composer? When Giuseppe Verdi, born 200 years ago next week, died in January 1901, Italy wept as one. Almost a quarter of a million people took to the streets, marching to Va, Pensiero from Nabucco – better known as the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves – sung by a massed choir under the baton of celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini.”
The reason the Italians took to the streets that wintry day at the dawn of the last century was about much more than just music. Verdi’s operas had provided the soundtrack to the politically tempestuous half-century that preceded his death, and his most famous arias had become quasi-anthems for a nation recently unified. When Nabucco had its premiere at La Scala in 1842, ‘Italy’ was simply a cluster of geographically contiguous kingdoms and principalities with little more to unite them than a common language.
So when Italians sang the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves at Verdi’s funeral procession, it wasn’t just because it was a catchy tune they knew the words to. Its subject – the Israelites giving poignant voice to their longing for the promised land – had become a powerful analogue for the long-frustrated desires of the Italian people. When they cried “Viva Verdi!” during the funeral procession, they were still acutely conscious of the slogan’s double meaning and its clandestine resonance for the agitators of ‘the Risorgimento’, as the cause of Italian nationalism was known.
The letters VERDI also spelled out the name of the King of Sardinia who, in 1861, finally took the throne of a unified nation for the first time since the 6th Century – Victor Emmanuele Re D’Italia.” (for more, see http://www.bbc.com/ culture/story/20131002-verdi- when-music-meets-politics).”
HERE’S OUR PHOTO ALBUM FROM LA OPERA’S “NABUCCO”
All these photos were taken before the opera started.
And now, here are some shots of the actual performance, including one from the same at the Met in New York.
Verdi’s aria was inspired by the biblical Psalm 137, one of the best known psalms. Its opening lines, “By the rivers of Babylon…” express the yearnings of the Hebrew people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river. The psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem, the Hebrews’ home.
DINNER AND OTHER PHOTOS
Before the opera, we had dinner at a French restaurant right under it (literally), and then walked around the opera in downtown LA as the sun was setting over it. 🙂
DAY 2 – NOV 9, 2017
PALM SPRINGS VISIT
The morning after Nabucco, we decided to drive out and spend the night (and the day) at Palm Springs. It is the city Elizabeth and I first visited nine years ago when I attended a shamanic retreat there.
But before leaving LA, we had to get some gas. Once we cleared the downtown are, took a random exit off the I-10. And guess where we ended up pumping gas? At a town called Alhambra! 🙂
(The place has a special significance for us after we visited the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, six months ago).
We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the main drag of Palm Springs. And then, unexpectedly, also got to partake in a large street market that opened up after sunset.
DAY 3 – NOV 10, 2017
DRIVE BACK HOME
We woke up the next morning to a cool and crystal clear day. It was perfect weather for our drive back home.
UPDATE NOV 13, 2017
NABUCCO: VA PENSIERO BY ALTZAR
On our drive back home from Los Angeles via Palm Springs, Elizabeth and I kept humming the entire time the famous Va Pensiero aria from Nabucco.
This music even played in my third ear in dreamtime the night of Nov 10-11.
So when I woke up on Nov 11 (two days ago), I knew I had to record my own version of it. So I downloaded the sheet music – to be sure I played it in the same key as written by Verdi (F#-major).
I have worked on it on and off during the last two days, and tonight, on a spur of a moment, I decided to record it “as is” in one fell swoop. And this is a result:
NABUCCO: VA PENSIERO – recorded by Bob Altzar Djurdjevic on a Clavinova in Scottsdale, Arizona – Nov 13, 2017