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Italy's 150th Anniversary:
Citizens Sing Va Pensiero

March 2011

Giuseppe Verdi

As Italy is celebrating its unification's 150th anniversary, Verdi's Nabucco was performed in Rome's opera theater to what some might call a reflection of the global mass strike.

To understand the significance of what happened a few days ago, a little background is necessary: Nabucco is the story of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the ancient empire of Babylon, and his empire's subjugation, as a foreign ruler, over the Jewish people. By the 1840's when the opera was written, Italy itself had been wrongfully occupied, since the evil congress of Vienna, by the Hapsburg Empire, and therefore the story had a unique resonance with the people in the audience. The account we have from Verdi himself, is that this opera was commissioned to be written soon after his wife and children died from sickness and he was almost too depressed to write it at all; in a manic fit Verdi threw down the libretto and the pages opened to the desperate prayer, va pensiero (fly thoughts).

He composed the opera quickly afterwards and it opened in Milan on March 9th of 1842. At this opening performance, the crowd of frustrated Italians was so moved by the chorus of the Jews singing for their freedom and for the return of their beautiful and lost country, the demands for an encore, though outlawed by the Austrian law, were overwhelming, and the encore was performed. Eventually Verdi and his music would be exalted to represent the passionate essence of the revolutionary Italians, leading through all their struggles to their eventual unification 19 years later, in 1861.

Last week, as a part of the celebration of Itay's 150th anniversary, the conductor, Riccardo Muti, opened the performance by denouncing the budget cuts in arts. When Va Pensiero was sung, the public applauded and called Encore so much that Muti said that Italy has also become a beautiful and lost Fatherland, and that they would perform it again, but that this time, the audience should sing too ... which they did! All the singers on stage and in the audience were moved to tears. This is the mass-strike in action!"

Click here for the video on YouTube [1]

The following is a rough translation of what is said by Muti in the video:

[After the shouts call for an encore of 'Va Pensiero' die down, it is heard from the Audience: “Long live Italy!”]

Conductor Riccardo Muti: Yes, I am in accord on this, “Long live Italy!” only …


Muti: I am not 30 any more, so I have lived my life, but as an Italian who goes a lot around the world, I am ashamed by what's happening in my country. So if I respond to your request of performing Va Pensiero again, it is not only out of patriotic reasons, but also because tonight, while the chorus was singing “o my country, beautiful and lost” I thought that if we kill the culture on which the history of Italy is based, then we, our fatherland, will really be beautiful but lost.

[wild applause, even from the performers on stage]

Muti: Since we are in an “italic climate” And very often I, Muti, have been silent. I would like now … we should make in a sense, like we are in our own house, the theater of the capital, and with a chorus that has sung magnificently, and they are accompanied wonderfully, if you like, to join us? And we do it all together … but in tempo please.

Links: [1]