Opera in a prologue and three acts
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave, with additions by Giuseppe Montanelli, after Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play Simón Bocanegra
First performed: Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 12 March 1857
Revised version: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 24 March 1881, with additions and alterations by Arrigo Boito
“I’ve had a fiasco in Venice almost as great as that of La Traviata,” Verdi wrote to the Countess Maffei; “I thought I’d done something passable but it seems I was mistaken.”
These days, Simon Boccanegra is one of Verdi’s most critically admired works, not a popular favourite but regularly performed around the world.
Julian Budden (The Operas of Verdi, 1978) called it “a near perfect masterpiece”, while Charles Osborne (The Complete Operas of Verdi, 1969) considers it “a masterly work” in which the “orchestration combines the subtlety of a Debussy with the kind of spontaneity that Berlioz occasionally achieved”. (Isn’t it, frankly, a slight to compare Berlioz to Verdi?)
Contemporary audiences, though, found Verdi’s opera about a 14th century Genoan Doge well doge-y.
The music was considered obscure, heavy, severe, and lacking in effect. (Verdi himself later called the score “troppo triste, troppo desolante”).
The story was gloomy and nigh-incomprehensible; musicologist and composer Abramo Basevi said he had to read the libretto SIX TIMES to make head or tail of it.
Briefly: Boccanegra, a corsair, becomes Doge of Genoa in 1339. He has had a daughter (now missing) by Maria, late daughter of the patrician Jacopo Fiesco, now his enemy. The action leaps forward to 1363. Fiesco (now calling himself Andrea) has passed off an orphan girl as Amelia Grimaldi, apparently to stop the Doge seizing an inheritance; unbeknownst to him, she is really his missing granddaughter. (Got that?) Amelia loves the young nobleman Gabriele Adorno. Boccanegra’s henchman Paolo also loves her. Boccanegra and Amelia recognise each other, so he refuses to let Paolo marry her. Paolo has Amelia kidnapped; when that scheme falls through, he poisons Boccanegra. Gabriele thinks Simon is Amelia’s lover, and wants to kill him. Fiesco/Andrea also wants his revenge. Paolo is punished, and the others are united. The dying Simon appoints Gabriele his successor.
There’s also a popular uprising, a civil war, and a curse in there, too.
Piave’s libretto is based on a Spanish play, but abridged to the point of nonsense. Characters and incidents necessary to follow the complex action – which spans 25 years – were missing; there was no connecting logical tissue between scenes.
Despite successful performances in Reggio Emilia and Naples, it was a flop – even laughed off the stage in Florence. Once Un ballo in maschera turned up, audiences forgot Boccanegra.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito revised the opera as a warm-up exercise for Otello. Boito thought it lacked true sense of theatre, or lifelike characters. Budden believes that Boito made the opera more dramatic, with effective incidents, more vivid characters, and better poetry – but made even more of a hash of the plot.
It is like one of those mathematical games where at one point the player takes away the number he first thought of. What was in Gutiérrez’s play a delicate, highly wrought dramatic mechanism has become a chaos of sensational incident.
But Simon Boccanegra, Budden claims, is still “a near perfect masterpiece” – for all its problems: “the subject, the complex and often illogical plot, the preponderance of lower male voices, the comparative rarity of true bassi profondi such as are needed for Fiesco, and not least the heavy demands made on the acting ability of the singers”.
“But it remains for the Verdian connoisseur a pearl of immeasurable price.”
I am not, I confess, a Verdian connoisseur. Don Carlos and Otello are magnificent, Un ballo in maschera brilliant, and there is much to enjoy in Aida, Rigoletto, Macbeth, and maybe one or two others.
On the other hand, I fell asleep during Nabucco; sat bored and irritated through Luisa Miller (it doesn’t live up to the overture); think most of the early ones are dumb and noisy; and agree with the general 19th century French view that Verdi was crude and decadent.
I’ve seen Boccanegra live once, watched a couple of DVDs, and heard the famous Abbado recording. I don’t find it very engaging.
There’s the plot, for a start. It’s confused and illogical, as even Verdi fanboys like Budden admit. There are too many characters, and the scenes aren’t logically connected. It really makes you appreciate Eugène Scribe’s well-made play.
(He, though, foisted on Verdi Les vêpres siciliennes, originally intended for Donizetti, who preferred to go mad and die rather than set it to music. Knowing Verdi’s earlier works, Scribe probably thought any old rubbish would do.)
The situations are dramatically false, designed to bring about “exciting” confrontations, because nobody acts rationally. Take Act II. Gabriele thinks Boccanegra is Amelia’s lover. She could resolve the situation by explaining that he’s her father. Does she? Of course not. It’s the sensible thing to do – but few people in Verdi are sensible. Characters in his early works are hyper-emotional, bipolar, and suicidally honourable; their solution to a problem is to set fire to Prague, stab their girlfriend, and throw themselves off a cliff. I’d rather see people be clever, than watch them be stupid. A lot of Verdi is exasperating.
Musically, it’s a long way from Verdi’s best work. A lot of the score consists of gloomy recitative or declamation, and there’s almost nothing memorable or distinctive – certainly no big tunes that stick in the ear.
The most attractive pieces are the Act I prelude; a passage in the Amelia / Gabriele duet; an orchestral phrase towards the end of the Doge / Amelia duet (heard again when the Doge lies down after he’s poisoned in Act II); Boccanegra’s peace and love arioso that launches the ensemble in the council scene; and a good trio in Act II.
The council scene and Act III just about save the opera. The scene between the two old men in the last act is excellent theatre, even if the music isn’t, while the ending is an Italian Death of Boris.
Check out Verdi’s much earlier I due Foscari, which is dramatically tighter, coherent, and has more memorable tunes (including a terrific tenor cabaletta, and a trio and quartet).