This week I was lucky enough to be at the Metropolitan Opera to see Verdi’s Nabucco. The opera tells the story of the conquest of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Captivity that followed. The high point of the opera is the elegiac Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. The captives lament the loss of their homeland and remember the beauty that once was. The music, the scene and the passion are so moving that the chorus is always followed by thunderous applause. The conductor traditionally accedes to the audience by granting an encore, an extremely rare occurrence in opera.
People who leave home to make a new life in a foreign land have to contend with alien languages, customs, religion and even food, all the while missing loved ones left behind. The suffering of immigrants and exiles is ineffable. Even those who have left home voluntarily must overcome the painful handicap of being strangers in a strange land. At best, they are met with indifference. More often they must overcome the prejudice and hatred of people who resent them and their foreign ways and who fear losing their jobs or their daughters to them.
Imagine when the exiles are refugees or captives and slaves, the spoils of war, as conquered peoples were throughout most of human history. For days I could not let go of the misery of the Jews so far from the home they loved, until I realized I was haunted by more than the unforgettable music. The chorus was widely interpreted as a metaphor for Italy’s plight under the Austrian dominion of the time.
As I watch Trump planning to dismantle the institutions of American democracy, all the while disparaging the opposition, I fear the demagogue will not only not keep his promises to the people who turned to him out of desperation, but will take steps as he lines his pockets to doom the planet and rob every American of a hope-filled and better future.
For the Italian lyrics and my translation, read on:
Go, thoughts, on golden wings;
Go, settle upon the slopes and hills,
where warm and soft and fragrant are
the gentle breezes of our native land!
Greet the banks of the Jordan,
the fallen towers of Zion …
Oh, my homeland so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear, yet so deadly.
Golden harp of soothsaying prophets,
why do you hang silent from the willow?
Rekindle the memories within our hearts,
Remind us of the time that is no more!
Or like the fate of Jerusalem,
Draw a sound of raw lament;
Or may the Lord inspire you with harmony
To infuse our suffering with endurance.
Va,’ pensiero, sull’ali dorate;
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l’aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate…
Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta!
O membranza sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simile di Solima ai fati,
traggi un suono di crudo lamento;
o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù!