94. Simon Boccanegra (Giuseppe Verdi)

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


3 stars

“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).

45 thoughts on “94. Simon Boccanegra (Giuseppe Verdi)

  1. As a Verdi fanboy, ouch, although you do concede that seven or eight of the operas are great (this is probably fairly accurate). Thanks for brining up I due Foscari, it is probably the most under appreciated of the pre-Macbeth operas.

    Did you compare the original 1857 version to the 1881? I reviewed it a while ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the great ones really are great. I’m thinking

      (I call myself an opera fan? Not convinced by Wagner, Verdi, or Puccini – but I like Mozart, though, including the unpopular Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito!)

      No, I’ve only heard the standard 1881 version.

      I’m listening to a really weird one, tying in with the centenary of the end of WWI. High-minded, abstract, & austere; mo#oto#ous, powerful, & some glorious orchestral passages. Probably a B, by your sta#dards.

      Like

      1. Four operas away from my 100th review. I’ve chosen the one I’ll do, too. (Let’s play a guessing game; I’ll wager my head.)

        Like

      2. I didn’t say you were right. (I didn’t say you were wrong, either.) I merely whistled: cryptically.

        I’ll give you a clue. It’s sung in a Indo-European language, in musical notation. That should confirm your suspicions!

        Like

      3. If only!

        I am, though, planning to look at operas that haven’t been recorded; I have access to music criticism, sets, and costume designs. It’d be fun to present these forgotten works (if tantalizing!).

        Like

      4. Obviously, you haven’t listened to enough Stockhausen! You need to listen to nothing but Stockhausen for a month. Have his music playing all the time, wherever you go. Eventually you will love him. That’s why it’s called Stockhausen syndrome.

        Like

      5. If only the Allies had bombed that place to the ground and repopulated it with Jews. Then it would just be farmland dotted with Synagogues and Yiddish theatres, sort of like the Catskills. If only….

        Instead, we have German “philosophical” crap like Licht. So much for the “master race”, give me Moses und Aron any day! I’ve had near death experiences better than Stockhausen.

        Meanwhile, I just reviewed Le roi de Lahore and Mozart i Salieri.

        Like

      6. Isn’t that the Nazis’ argument, only with the roles reversed? Genocide is rarely the answer!

        (Stockhausen’s mother, by the way, was killed by the Nazis.)

        I’m not a fan of high-minded German operas – the ones that are serious because the composer tells you so. “Look, I am writing an opera about
        the transfiguration of the soul, redeeming the redeemer, and why women should have more babies!” But does it work as drama?

        William Berger (Puccini Without Apologies) draws a line between German / Protestant and Italian / Catholic ways of interpreting texts.

        The Catholics, on the other hand, argue that there are four layers of interpretation (the Quadriga): (1) literal/historical, (2) allegorical, (3) moral/theological, and (4) analogical. He gives the example of Tosca, and suggests that Puccini’s educated audience would have seen not just the literal drama, but a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian,

        The Germans, on the other hand, are literalist; fantasy & fairy tales are OK so long as they’re in a box. (And, by extension, their philosophizing is overt.) “A German (or a German-inspired) production does not allow for multiple layers of interpretation and therefore any meanings the director wishes to make clear must be patently visible onstage.” That’s where you get Regie from.

        It’s a fascinating little book; track down a copy!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. That explains so much, and now I really feel sorry for Stockhausen (not a feeling I thought I would ever have but being someone whose mother died when he was young, I can empathize).

        I was educated in Catholic schools for thirteen years, so I suppose that may be why I seek those multiple layers of interpretation and find the German school’s preoccupation with philosophy to be a cover up for the fact that German just sounds terrible when sung in comparison to French or Italian.

        I would just assume that multiple layer interpretation is normative, but I suppose now that is due to my upbringing. It is ironic given my half and half Italian/German ethnic status, sort of a tug of war which the Italians won!

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Well, so do most languages! I studied German in high school, before giving it up in Year 11; the grammar is convoluted, and it’s not an intuitive language for me in any way.

        German opera isn’t all Wagner, though; what about Beethoven, Weber, Marschner, Lortzing, and Nicolai? You might like Nessler, too; some really pretty music: https://operascribe.com/2017/08/27/der-trompeter-von-sakkingen-viktor-nessler/

        Von Suppe’s Austrian, but his music is delightful.

        Sorry to hear about your mother; that must have been tough growing up.

        Like

      9. #96 and #97 will be D’Indy’s Fervaal and L’Étranger. The music’s good; the opening of L’Étranger is as luminously beautiful as Parsifal. I wish I could say as much for his politics!

        Like

      10. That bombing reference I made a couple of days ago was part of the Morgenthau Plan (although they weren’t going to liquidate the entire German population). The original intention was to deindustrialize Germany completely and turn it into Moldova basically with an agricultural economy. It fell through after the Americans realized that the Soviets were planning on building up East German manufacturing after the war.

        This reminds me of Hessy Taft, a German baby who won a baby photo beauty contest in 1935 when the Nazis were going to find the “most beautiful Aryan baby” for propaganda posters. Hessy is Jewish, and the photographer who submitted the winning photo told her mother he did it in order to make the Nazis look ridiculous. Hessy is now at age 84 a chemistry professor at St. John’s University in NYC.

        Like

      11. What, though, about Schubert and Schumann’s Lieder, or Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder? Do you find them ugly?

        Wagner was his own librettist, and was equally a genius in both. Strauss, though, had the advantage of working with Hofmannsthal and Zweig.

        Like

      12. I don’t even want to look at another German opera for months or even years. I put myself through Tristan for four hours, that was enough.

        Incidentally, Freischutz is so much better in the Berlioz version, no spoken dialogue, a good ballet, it’s in French so I understand what the heck is going on….

        That would have been a good choice for your 100th! Heck Moses und Aron would be a better choice, or even Lulu or Die Tode Stadt. See you could do 20th century German opera and never even touch a goy!

        I’m being slightly overboard, but really, why put yourself through the flagellating misery that is Stockhausen?

        And I’ve heard Glass’ Akhnaten, I actually rather like it.

        Like

      1. Oh on Guercoeur? The contemporary comparisons to Wagner are apt. The first scene of act 2 is very obviously parodied on the second scene of act 1 of Tannhauser. Your own comparison of scene 2 of that act to the talky bed room sequence in Lohengrin is also rather good. You never really talked that much about what you thought of the music personally, more the plot. You definitely fit it into the historical context of the Great War.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s