Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera and an instant success. The positive response to it secured him a place among the opera greats. At the time (the early 1840s), Rossini was all the rage; his three operas, Semiramide, Moses, and Otello, had met with universal approval.
Whether Verdi felt competitive, or whether he just admired Rossini’s efforts, he wrote Aida to answer Semiramide, Nabucco to match Moses, and his own version of Otello to challenge Rossini's. Of those three Rossini operas, only one, Moses, still gets some play; in the other two cases Verdi's works supplanted the earlier models.
Nabucco tells the story of the Jews of Jerusalem as they are attacked, then banished, by the Babylonian king Nabucco. In the opera, Nabucco’s family is totally dysfunctional. The eldest daughter, Abigaille, turns on the youngest, steals the royal seal from her father, and declares herself queen. For destroying Solomon’s Temple, Nabucco is struck by a lightning bolt from heaven. Eventually all is set right, the Jews are freed, the younger daughter saved, and Nabucco and Abigaille (who is on her deathbed, having poisoned herself) call on the God of Israel to watch over them.
In the current production at the Arena di Verona, veteran Leo Nucci, who is also playing Rigoletto in repertory, plays Nabucco. Both roles are strongly identified with Nucci, and the audience clearly loves him. He has a warm, thrilling voice, with great power and clarity. Abigaille is sung by Maria Guleghina, who I saw early this year play Lady Macbeth in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. She has a strong presence and her voice resonates throughout the huge Arena. She too is closely associated with this role, having performed it numerous times with Pavarotti.
The real star of Nabucco is the chorus. I have stated elsewhere that the chorus at the Arena di Verona is the best I have heard anywhere. It's huge, but they sing as one. When they sang the famous third act chorus “Va, pensiore,” the audience demanded an encore. I think it must be the most beautiful-sounding chorus in all of opera.
The set consisted of huge, geometric metal shapes with steps and balconies, and when the light shone through the structures they cast a marvelous pattern on the stone steps of the Arena. Daniel Oren vigorously and devotedly conducted the orchestra. The casts rotate with a repertory of five operas and one ballet through late August at Arena di Verona.