Opera has plundered all sorts of sources for story material, including mythology, fairy tales, medieval epics, novels, plays from Shakespeare to Schiller, even factual events. Yet the Bible, a veritable spring of wonderful tales, was not mined for libretti until centuries of operatic history went by, and then only sparingly. Old Testament tales became accepted fodder for oratorios, but for a long time the opera stage remained off-limits.
The subject matter gained some standing in 1821 with Gioachino Rossini's Mosé in Egitto, but despite that work's success remarkably few operas based on Bible stories were composed during the rest of the 19th century. Of these, the only two which remain in the active mainstream repertoire happen to be on the schedule of the Metropolitan this month, Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns and Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi.
Despite the acclaim Saint-Saëns had earned as a brilliant pianist and organist, Samson et Dalila was not heard in his native France until 13 years after Franz Liszt forced its 1877 world premiere in Weimar, Germany. The composer himself hadn't been sure of his path: he had originally conceived of Samson et Dalila as an oratorio. Nonetheless, it became his only stage work that retained popularity.
Nabucco, though, was a different matter. After Verdi's second opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno, had failed abysmally at La Scala, the composer was deeply depressed. He had recently seen his two young children and his wife die in quick succession; now he doubted his vocation. As he later recalled, however, he was inspired by the Temistocle Solera libretto which had been turned down by the Viennese composer Otto Nicolai, particularly the verses for the great chorus of the Hebrew captives, "Va, pensiero." Nabucco was a hit from the moment it premiered.
One French opera that ultimately succeeded richly, and a single Italian one that launched a career onto a meteoric trajectory (and almost nothing else) is a paucity that prompts curiosity.
One reason may be audience sensitivity to even a hint of blasphemy. Following the extreme, even violent, anti-clericalism of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath, there was a powerfully conservative backlash. Society as well as governments retreated into a safe traditionalism, defined in England by the Victorian Age. Organized religion became a bastion of that reactionary attitude, to be challenged at one's peril.
Some of this position was expressed in formal censorship by repressive governmental authorities, such as those Verdi battled throughout much of his career in a divided Italy controlled by foreign nations or by papal power. Some, no less potent, was simply "in the air," as witness the long reluctance of the Paris Opéra to stage Samson et Dalila even after its triumph in Germany.
In addition, the Bible is wonderfully complex, alive with a density of implications regardless of the language in which it is read. Saint-Saëns and Verdi knew St. Jerome's Vulgate, the authorized Bible for Roman Catholics (for this article the still-standard 1609 Douay/Rheims English translation was used). But in whatever edition, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, there are so many allusions and cross-references, resonating with powerful underlying assertions about Divinity, that extracting any single biblical story presents extraordinary, perhaps unique, creative challenges. Removing it from the matrix of the whole invariably dilutes its power.
Saint-Saëns and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire stuck closer to the source for Samson et Dalila than did Solera for Nabucco, mostly by just eliminating the pre-Dalila sections. Samson was one of a series of judges whom God appointed when the Israelites backslid into sin or idolatry, or when faced with trouble from their local enemies between the time they occupied the Promised Land and the installation of the monarchy. Samson had a few distinctions. For one, as every school child knows, he was amazingly strong, a veritable Superman. For another, he was one of only two people in the Hebrew Bible‹the other is Isaac‹whose conception was foretold by angelic messengers. The angels further instructed his parents that he was to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God's service, destined to free his people from Philistine oppression. This sounds a more onerous obligation than it actually was. Men normally remained nazirs for only a period of time, not specified in scripture but rarely for life, and they had only three restrictions. They were forbidden to drink wine or eat fruit of the vine, touch dead people, or cut their hair.
Samson stuck to the letter of those rules‹until the end‹but aside from that was a pretty obnoxious character. When young he stubbornly determined to marry a Philistine despite parental and religious objections. That led to a mess of problems which eventually caused the belligerent Samson to raise havoc not only with those who had cheated on paying off on a riddle-game he had proposed, but on all Philistines. He tied burning torches to the tails of foxes and released them onto the harvest, destroying it. When arrested for this, he ripped apart his bonds and killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a handy dead donkey.
Slaughter came easily to him, and so did lechery; we soon find him bedded down with a Philistine whore. His enemies surrounded him, figuring he would be tired after a night of whoopee, but he escaped in darkness, tearing down the huge town gates and for punctuation carrying them back to an Israelite village. Almost immediately he began an illicit affair with "a woman who dwelt in the Vale of Sorec." Dalila may or may not have been Philistine (the Scriptures do not specify) but she was quite willing to accept a bribe of eleven hundred pieces of silver to uncover the secret of Samson's strength. Three times he deceived her with fake answers, but on her fourth try Samson, either too dumb or too horny to learn, told her that a haircut would render him helpless.
Lulling Samson into an erotic doze, Dalila "shaved his seven locks." He was overpowered, blinded, thrust into a dungeon, forced to push a heavy millstone. There his hair grew back, unnoticed by his captors. When they dragged him out for display at a party honoring their god Dagon, he asked to be placed near the pillars supporting the temple, and then prayed not for God's justice, but for vengeance for the loss of his eyes, whereupon he brought the place crashing down.
The biblical Samson was not the heroic figure portrayed in the opera. He never rallied the Israelites around him, and needed no extra seducing to lust after loose women. Nor did the biblical Dalila refuse to accept the betrayal money on patriotic grounds. Nevertheless, in broad outline the libretto follows the well-known events in the source‹Samson's seduction, betrayal, and retaliation‹closely enough to be recognizable.
The libretto for Verdi's Nabucco can make no such claim. The biblical events are perhaps too sweeping, too filled with important events and figures, to permit easy distillation. Babylonia had become the most powerful empire in the Middle East after defeating its former Assyrian overlords, although the libretto confusingly uses the word Assyrians when really referring to Babylonians. In 597 B.C.E. King Nebuchadnezzar installed a puppet king in Judea, Zedekiah, but allowed the native faith to flourish. However, after nine years Zedekiah rebelled despite the pleading of the prophet Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar exacted brutal revenge on king and people. In 586 he sacked Jerusalem, deported all the leading citizens into captivity and, most dreadful of all, demolished the holy Temple in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant. It was such a seminal event that the date is still commemorated with mourning among observant Jews. Several Biblical books recall the period through the return to Jerusalem in 538, after Babylonia was defeated by the Persians.
The Book of Daniel gave Solera the starting point for his plot. He trod carefully; this book was held in particularly high esteem by the Roman Catholic Church because its later visionary chapters are taken to be prophetic of Christian doctrine. There are well-known stories he could have chosen, like Daniel's friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace; Daniel himself in the Lion's Den; or the Writing on the Wall. Instead Solera eliminated the character of Daniel entirely, opened with a simplified conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, and then fictionalized some events around twelve verses in Chapter 4, the madness of Nebuchadnezzar‹Nabucco.
Every character other than the King is made up of whole cloth. There was a prophet named Zaccaria (Zechariah) in the Bible, but he came after the Babylonian Exile. The character in the opera bears traces of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but it's a stretch. Jeremiah never left Judea and preached peace; the angrier Ezekiel, who went to Babylon, was not the bloody-minded prophet the operatic Zaccaria is. The conquered Judean king did not have a nephew named Ismaele (Ishmael), nor were any daughters, actual or "adopted," let alone any named Fenena and Abigaille, attributed to Nebuchadnezzar. Certainly there was no love triangle. And Nebuchadnezzar never claimed to be God. He did, though, admire his handiwork as builder of Babylon, whereupon a heavenly voice, as forecast by Daniel, told him "Thou shalt be cast out from men, and thy dwelling shall be with cattle and wild beasts; thou shalt eat grass like an ox." For the mandated time he remained wild and deranged. When his senses returned, he testified: "I do now praise, and magnify, and glorify the King of heaven." Maybe so, but the Israelite people were kept in captivity until after his death, when Cyrus the Great defeated his son Belshazzar.
Nabucco, then, is only very loosely based on Old Testament writings, although Solera went out of his way to make it seem more biblical by preceding each act of his libretto with a paraphrase of an appropriate section of Jeremiah. Nonetheless, besides providing effective operatic situations, Solera's words, with the composer's input, are lofty enough that no matter how far Nabucco strayed from its source Verdi was stirred to create music with such a sense of reverence that the opera is lifted far above a mere thud-and-blunder Ancient World melodrama.
Nabucco and Samson et Dalila are very different from each other in atmosphere, style, even fidelity to the original material, yet both hold enduring appeal for audiences. Nevertheless, this lonely pair derived from Bible stories, are exceptions amidst all the 19th century works which form the core of opera house repertory. Whether composers had religious compunctions or censorship qualms, or simply feared that the resonance inherent in Scripture was too intense and too significant for the simplification demanded by operatic treatment, the fact remains that a rich font of stories went underused. Whatever the case, both works tell powerful stories of love, hope, and faith and are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.