Being half-Italian, I have a genetic predilection for Giuseppe Verdi, one heightened by the fact that several of my ancestors worked first-hand with the composer in his orchestras and opera productions (I found a note from him to one of my ancestors in a library in Bologna about the trumpet solo in "Celeste Aida" prior to the work's Milan premiere, while great-great-something–uncle Luigi Giovetti was a violinist and dance instructor heavily into Joe Green during the Italian reunification).
So there is something that strikes me every time the chorus of Hebrew slaves reach "Va pensiero" in Nabucco, now playing at the Metropolitan Opera with the next performance on Saturday. Verdi was a musician first, but his nationalistic political leanings followed closely: "Viva VERDI" in Italy in the 1860s was an acronym for "Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia" or (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). "Va pensiero" was immediately adored by its Milanese audiences, who at the time of the work's premiere were still occupied by the Austrian army.
Politics pervade many an opera—from Lully's Atys to Adams's Nixon in China. However, perhaps no composer can match Verdi for the sheer number of politically-charged moments in opera. My top 10 picks are below, but tell us: What are your favorite political moments in Verdi (or any other composer's canon)? Leave your picks in the comments below.
This was the finale to invoke the rage of the censors in Verdi's time, namely because it depicted the murder of a monarch onstage. The political intrigue pales in comparison to the love story here (which is heightened oh-so-slightly in comparison to the real-life murder of King Gustav III), however when Ballo is transported from Verdi's substitute of Boston to its intended Swedish setting, you get a new understanding of regicide. The opera has two additional surrounding political intrigues: President Lincoln saw it four years prior to his own, similar, assassination, and it was the opera that Marian Anderson sang when she became the first black singer to appear with the Metropolitan Opera.
9. Finale, Rigoletto
Rigoletto isn't the first opera you may think of when you think Verdi and politics. In fact, it beat out some works with more overt themes about governmental relations (which are at the heart of the painfully-excluded Aida, you can hate on me all you want for that one but I stick by my guns). However, consider the first time you encountered Rigoletto, not knowing anything about the work: How horrifying and heartbreaking was it that Gilda died in the Duke's place and Rigoletto cries out "la maledizione!"? You think the little guy is going to avenge himself and his brethren (Monterrone) against the Man, but because the Duke is just that—a man of political power—he is allowed to get off Scott-free for his antics. And that's the real tragedy. His reprise of "La donna è mobile" is blood-boiling.
One of Verdi's rarer gems, the central theme of I due Foscari is about one man's split duties as father and Doge, and his inability to catch a single break (unlucky fathers seem to be a central theme in Verdi's oeuvre). Francesco attempts to exonerate his son from a crime, then to allow his son's family to join him in exile. After his son leaves Venice, Francesco learns of his innocence, then learns of his death and then is told by the Council of Ten that he should step down as Doge. He launches into this scena full of pathos—lamenting the thanks that he gets for being a ruler first and a family man second—before shuffling off his own mortal coil.
7. "Non giusta causa…Dio non lo vuole," I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata
I could go into detail on this aria, but the subtitles on the below video (with the striking Lauren Flanigan singing the role of Griselda, who has just discovered that her family was killed by the Crusaders) speak for themselves. It's eerie to consider how much lines like "You covet the wealth of the Muslims/This is not heaven's desire!" still ring true today.
It's hard to pick the best moment here: Sure, Nabucco boasts the best chorus of oppressed countrymen, but Macbeth comes in at a close second with a scene featuring not one but two choruses ("Patria oppressa" and "La patria tradita") bookending Macduff's vow of vengeance ("Ah, la paterna mano"). It makes one nostalgic for the time when taking your country back wasn't just a sentiment reserved for Tea Parties.
5. Prologo, Attila
Attila isn't the most exciting of Verdi's operas—especially when it's done with a set that includes a blue tarp—but it did cause quite a stir almost from the get-go upon its 1846 premiere. The opening chorus sings of a conquered city designed to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. When the conquering Hun makes his entrance, he is confronted by Odabella who asks why his women stay home while Italian women are brave and badass and take up where their male colleagues leave off. Finally, Ezio and Attila share a duet in which the former proposes a deal with the latter, the crux of which being: "Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me!” ("You can have the universe, but leave Italy to me"). Understandably, the Austrian-occupied Milanese went crazy for this line.
Boccanegra is a politically tense opera with a Ballo–like plot to kill the title character and a Trovatore–style revelation about one character's actual family. Some of the tension, however, is cut in the finale of Act I when Boccanegra, whose session in Senate is interrupted by a bloodthirsty mob, redirects the crowd's rage. You can hear that coolness come in with the violins and Amelia's waves of coloratura at the end, but since this is just the first act of the opera, you know plenty more upheaval awaits. This is just the calm before the storm.
3. "Per me giunto…O Carlo, ascolta," Don Carlo
Bromance and bureaucracy combine in the über-political Don Carlo, and Rodrigo's death scene gives a little taste for both dishes: First he offers to take the onus of treason off of his friend, Carlo, and falsely confess to the deeds himself, knowing that with his self-sacrifice he'll be saving his friend. Before he can do so, he's shot and, dies happy knowing that he has given Spain a political savior. In his parting words, delivers the moving farewell aria with the chilling and galvanizing line "Salva la Fiandra!" ("Save Flanders!")
2. "In alto mare" and "O tu Palermo," I vespri siciliani
There's no sense in trying to pick one aria over the other when you can compare the two in this opera, originally written for France and, conversely, depicting the French as evil oppressors of 13th-century Sicily. In the first act, a mourning Sicilian Elena is coerced by several drunken French soldiers to sing. This act of misogyny turns into a call to arms from Elena to her compatriots, with a stirring chorus of "Corragio, su corragio" that subsequently incites the oppressed onlookers to riot. It gives heft to the strength of characters, and is anchored in the following scene by the exile Procida's lament upon returning to his homeland without aid to rebel against its foreign occupiers.
1. "Va pensiero," Nabucco
No great surprise here, just great music—indeed, music so great that this is still proclaimed as Italy's unofficial national anthem (it was performed at the 2006 Olympics in Torino). Earlier this year (the 150th anniversary of Italy's reunification), Riccardo Muti conducted Nabucco in Rome and, following a characteristically stirring rendition of this chorus, encored it—pausing to tell the audience that, in light of the ongoing cultural issues in Italy, the line "O mia patria, sì bella e perduta" ("Oh my country, so beautiful and lost") was still a jarringly germane line over a century and a half since it was first sung. The full video is below. Watch it and weep.