To find oneself sitting in the majestic auditorium of La Scala, Milan, is thrilling enough in itself. To be attending a performance of Verdi’s opera Nabucco, which decribes the biblical episode surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon two and a half millennia ago, is even more thrilling. To find all this being linked to the Holocaust that took place just seventy years ago almost beggars belief. But that is what happened to me during my unforgettable visit to Milan last week.
The opera also holds a special place in Italy’s history. It was Nabucco which first brought Verdi to prominence, and the touching chorus of the Hebrew slaves in the third act served to trigger the public demonstrations that led to the eventual unification of Italy under Garibaldi and Mazzini in the nineteenth century.
The story of the opera, as is customary in such cases, uses the historical events as a backdrop to a convoluted story of love, jealousy, disappointment and triumph, allowing the soloists to display their vocal artistry and dramatic talents. There is, of course, no factual basis for the story of the love triangle, but it all helps to move the characters along and bring the events to life.
In the production I attended last week the curtain rose to reveal a set of stunted pillars, representing the Temple, and somehow reminiscent of the Holocaust memorial that has been erected on the site of the former S.S. headquarters in Berlin. I didn’t catch the allusion until the choir entered the scene. They were dressed in clothes from the 1940s, and it was evident to me, at least, that the staging was meant to evoke pictures of Jewish refugees being assembled for deportation to concentration camps. The choir also included children who, although they didn’t actually sing, evoked the sense of uprooted families. The shock was so great that I had difficulty controlling my tears, to the consternation of the couple from South Korea who were sharing our box.
The opera proceeded most harmoniously and mellifluously, with wonderful soloists, glorious choral sections and orchestral parts, and stately staging. In the interval the audience mingled outside the auditorium, and it would be invidious to compare the elegance and splendor of the outfits worn by both ladies and gentlemen with those of our fellow concert-goers in Jerusalem, and even Tel-Aviv.
The chorus of the Hebrew slaves comes in the second scene of the third act. The dramatic opening chords were played to the closed curtain, which then rose to reveal the members of the chorus, crowded – possibly herded – together in centre stage, the children placed artfully at the front, singing the beautiful music that Verdi had composed to convey their longing for their homeland. The music began softly, then swelled as the conductor brought out the maximum from both orchestra and choir. I swear that there wasn’t a single dry eye among the two-thousand-strong audience. When the final, drawn-out, a-capella chord ended the whole auditorium erupted into wild applause, with incessant calls of ‘Bis!’ (encore) and ‘Bravi!’ (plural of bravo). The conductor, Nicola Luisotto, tried to avoid acceding to this demand, but the audience refused to calm down until he finally gave in and instructed the orchestra and choir to repeat the chorus. It was heart-rending and heart-warming at one and the same time.
The audience calmed down, the opera continued and eventually reached its wildly unconvincing ending, with King Nebuchadnezer regaining his sanity, converting to Judaism and allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. But who cares? It was an unforgettable event, and a memory that I shall treasure for ever.