-- Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, lyrics by Temistocle Solera, music by Verdi, 1842
Below Verdi, in his conventional frock coat, stand figures from four of his operas. Leonora from La Forza del Destino, first produced in 1862, wears a nun's habit.
Aida, from the 1871 opera of the same name, seems Wonder-Woman-like in a fringed sarong.
Gaunt Otello, from the 1887 opera, wears long curved dagger tucked into his sash.
Falstaff, from the 1893 opera, is cheerful and rotund.
Even when Verdi died in 1901, these four operas were not his most famous in the United States. La Forza del Destino, for instance, didn't premier at the Metropolitan Opera until 1918. Why, then, are these four characters on the Monument, rather than characters from La Traviata or Rigoletto?
The obvious place to seek the answer would be Il Progresso Italo-Americano, whose editor Carlo Barsotti conceived and sponsored the drive for the Verdi Monument. Il Progresso devoted page after page in issue after issue to woodcut engravings illustrating the five figures and the complete Monument. Not once, however, did an article appear explaining why these particular figures were chosen.
So let's speculate. Perhaps Civiletti chose those operas to show Verdi's international sources and reputation: La Forza del Destino debuted in St. Petersburg, Aida in Cairo; Otello and Falstaff derive from Shakespeare. The characters might also have been chosen to show the breadth of Verdi's work: Falstaff was a successful comedy, Aida a profound tragedy. Then again, perhaps Civiletti chose these figures for their visual contrast: brooding Otello and cheerful Falstaff, prim Leonora and exotic Aida.
A sculpture whose message is unclear is esthetically flawed (see Lincoln, OMOM #15). On the other hand, the choice of figures here might be deliberately thought-provoking. For Verdi fans, the Monument offers an opportunity to consider which of Verdi's works are most innovative, most emotionally charged and most appealing. If you were creating a monument to Verdi, which characters would you include?
On a bleak, rainy day in January 1901, Giuseppe Verdi (b. 1813) was laid to rest. Although he had asked that no music be performed at his funeral, five thousand mourners spontaneously burst into "Va, pensiero" from his 1842 opera Nabucco. When the bodies of Verdi and his wife were moved to the grounds of the musicians' retirement home that Verdi had founded, Toscanini led eight hundred singers performing "Va, pensiero." Why was this piece so beloved that it became virtually the Italian national anthem?
Nabucco (or Nabucodonosor) is played out against the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. In Act 3 the Chorus of Hebrew slaves sings "Va, pensiero," whose lyrics are based on Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat mourning and weeping when we remembered Zion." The psalm ends with a gruesome imprecation:
Solera, the librettist, wrote a kinder, gentler ending:
Rekindle the memories in our hearts,
Remind us of times gone by!
Remembering the fate of Jerusalem
Play us a sad lament,
Or may the Lord inspire you
So that we can endure our suffering!
According to one account Verdi, reluctantly scanning the libretto after he had resolved to terminate his short, unsuccessful career, found the lyrics of "Va, pensiero" so moving that he decided to return to composing.
In the early 1840s, the Italian peninsula comprised a patchwork of provinces under foreign rule. A Hapsburg duke held Tuscany, the French held southern Italy and Sicily, the Austrians Lombardy and the Veneto. The Austrians were inclined to deny permission for Nabucco's performance at La Scala, fearing it would encourage anti-monarchical sentiments. They ultimately granted permission with the proviso that no encores be performed. The opening-night audience, however, demanded a repetition of "Va, pensiero." Ever since, it has been traditional to sing an immediate encore at every performance.
In a country 80% illiterate, "Va, pensiero" became a rallying cry. Like the image of Jagiello (OMOM #39), it made no explicit statement about the prevailing political situation, yet had a theme that roused strong patriotic feelings. Verdi's name even became an anagram for those seeking the reunification of Italy under the king of the Piedmont. "Viva Verdi" stood for "Viva Victor Emanuel, Rei d'Italia." When Verdi died forty years after Italy was unified, "Va, pensiero" still held profound emotional resonance for those who had struggled to create the Italian nation.