On Wings of Gold
A pale, bronze moon hanging over the stage. A still, nighttime atmosphere, silent and unperturbed. A deceptively peaceful setting in the world-famous opera piece “Va, Pensiero,” sung in the third act of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. Then we notice the crowd of people, the Hebrews, standing together as a community, solemn, shivering, and sad. In fact, in the story of Nabucco, the Hebrews have gathered together for what they believe may be their last moments in Israel, their homeland, after the Queen of Babylon has decreed an invasion.
This powerful, moving scene is in many ways the centerpiece of Nabucco, eliciting an ethereal sense of longing from the audience, and winning the audience’s sympathies as the Jews cry out for their home in unison and crescendo. Upon hearing the piece live for the first time, I felt utterly enraptured by the emotion of the piece, the lullaby-like melody, and the somber congregation of many voices in a beautiful harmony that drove chills through my spine. I found “Va, Pensiero” to be one of the most gorgeous choir pieces I have ever heard. However, History has transformed it into more than just an opera piece, or a simple song of hope.
Nabucco was produced from the depths of Verdi’s depression. His wife and two children had died only a few years before, and a previous opera work had been largely unsuccessful. The rampant success of Nabucco was the turning point of Verdi’s life, and “Va, Pensiero” became the iconic song associated with it. During the opera’s premiere, the audience joined in singing “Va, Pensiero” fervently in the streets, and when Verdi died in 1901, people spontaneously formed a choir to celebrate the composer’s life with the same piece. But the piece has taken on more meaning over centuries than just being one of Verdi’s iconic masterpieces. Many scholars have argued that “Va, Pensiero” is a work of political allegory after Italy had fallen to Austrian government in 1815. Italian nationalist movements sparked the “Risorgimento,” which intensified Italian nationalism. Nabucco, which was first performed in 1842, seemed in many ways to parallel the struggle of the Italians and compare it with that of the Hebrews in the Biblical story of their subjugation by Babylon. Indeed, in many performances, the song is accompanied by a backdrop of Italians singing together, behind the chorus of Hebrews.
As a result of the nationalistic charge within the song, “Va, Pensiero” became heralded as a symbol of Italian nationalism and still is today, embodying hope for the future and sometimes even revolution. In fact, in 2009, an Italian senator voted to replace the current Italian national anthem with “Va, Pensiero.”
The piece is incredibly inclusive and uplifting to listen to. The melody gathers people together under one voice, and the words well together hope and longing in the face of adversity, and it has been performed countless times since Nabucco’s opening in 1842 (As a sidenote, here is an interesting concert version of the anthem which uses the song’s melody and meaning mixed with some English lyrics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bt9RTMDvX4.
I found that the variation of the English singer’s voice and the use of a “rock-and-roll voice” in certain places contrasted very nicely with the original Italian lyrics). “Va Pensiero”‘s emotional charge, uncomplicated melody, and themes of pressing on through struggle and hoping for a peaceful future has solidified its place as a timeless classic of opera music, and as I face adversity in the challenges of life, I’m sure my mind will wander back to “Va Pensiero” to help me through.