Cry for freedom inspires patriots to cast out foreign ruler

Continuing a season of desire, the second San Diego Opera production shifts from love and passion to freedom. Although "Nabucco" by Giuseppe Verdi is based on a biblical event in the Book of Jeremiah, the quest of people held in bondage for freedom is timeless.

The story of the opera goes like this. Nabucco (also called Nebuchadnezzar) is the Babylonian king who conquered Israel and destroyed Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. Captive Hebrews are comforted by their prophet, the high priest Zaccaria, by predicting the collapse of the Babylonian Empire and their return to the homeland. There is a highlight in the opera as the chorus sings the powerful cry for freedom in the best known of Verdi's popular choral works.

In his day, the libretto was a problem for Verdi to get his third opera on the stage. Censors suspected that the Hebrew quest for liberty had a familiar message for patriot Italians struggling under Austrian rule. The composer did this on purpose to support his republican beliefs, as often happened in his choices of libretti.

Verdi had his own version of history. Many of his operas begin with a kernel of truth then spin into the stuff of legend, according to a lecture given by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Obviously, these historical dramas can be fashioned into a political statement.

As it turned out, the great freedom chorus became the unofficial Italian national anthem and still stirs the hearts of audiences watching "Nabucco." The underlying story for the opera is a convoluted plot of conflict between rulers and those who want to rule. A romance involves the nephew of the King of Jerusalem and Nabucco's daughter. Her sister is a rival for the lover's attention while plotting to takeover her father's throne. Most opera libretti create a love triangle for dramatic punch.

Verdi's first two operas had little success. When "Nabucco" premiered in Milan in 1842, he finally gained the recognition that launched a long career as the voice of Italian opera despite his skirmishes with censors. Most of Verdi's operas of historic themes have hidden political perceptions that 19th century rulers believed to be rebellious.

The SDO production features sets and costumes from Lyric Opera of Chicago under the direction of Lotfi Mansouri with Edoardo Müller conducting, a team that has performed here many times to great acclaim. It took five years for General Director Ian Campbell to assemble the cast due to vocal demands of the key artists.

The role of Nabucco requires a baritone with high tessitura. That means a high range with texture in the vocal sound. Abigaille, his rebellious daughter, calls for a big dramatic soprano voice that sounds lyric.

American baritone Richard Paul Fink returns to SDO in the title role for a fourth local appearance. American bass Raymond Aceto sings Zaccaria in his company debut. French soprano Sylvie Valayre, seen here as Tosca in 2009, is Abigaille. "Nabucco" was last performed here in 1981 during the Verdi Festival. The opera is sung in Italian with English text over the stage.

Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 and Tuesday, Feb. 23; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit

[I]Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.[/I]

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