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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Verdi Project: Simon Boccanegra

Verdi's most political opera gets it right...eventually.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The digital Doge: Simon Boccanegra as he appears in the video game
Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World. Image © 2010 Firaxis Games.
Not every great opera is a success out of the box. La Traviata is one of those major works that bombed on opening night. But that's nothing compared to the struggles that Simon Boccanegra faced on its long and torturous path into the standard operatic repertory. Verdi's eighteenth opera was a failure at its 1857 premiere. It went through heavy revisions in 1881. Those extensive revisions marked Verdi's first collaboration with librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, with whom he would later create Otello and Falstaff. The title role is one of the pillars of the baritone repertory.

As with il Trovatore, the source for Simon Boccanegra was Simón Bocanegra, an 1843 Spanish play by Antonio García Gutiérrez. The two dramas are very different. Simone Boccanegra was an historical personage, the first Doge ("leader") to be elected in the history of the city state of Genoa. He served two terms, from 1339 to 1344 and later from 1356 to 1363, the year he died. However, the story of the opera is entirely from Gutiérrez' pen, an imbroglio involving hidden identities, warring political factions and the title character's relationship with his long-lost daughter Amelia.

This is a complicated plot. Simon is a pirate, who, at the urging of his friend Paolo Albiani, is elected to the post of Doge in a power struggle between the common people ("Ghibelines") and the nobility ("the Guelphs.") His rise to power is marred by the death of his beloved Maria, the daughter of his enemy (the Guelph noble Jacopo Fiesco) and the mother of his illegitimate child. The action then jumps twenty-five years to 1363, the year of the historical Simon's death. He has become a wise and efficient ruler, who is shocked to learn that the beautiful young Amelia Grimaldi is actually his long-lost daughter. She was raised by Fiesco, and loves Simon's enemy, the hot-headed Gabriele Adorno.

Boito's libretto sets the next scene to the Council Chamber of Genoa, where Boccanegra reigns as a wise and just leader. Offstage, Amelia has been kidnapped, but escapes, bursting into the council chamber with the name of her accuser on her lips. An angry mob, led by the young nobleman Gabriele Adorno (who is in love with Amelia but hates Boccanegra) marches on the Council. Boccanegra calls for peace and the riot stops. All are ordered to curse the kidnappers, including Paolo, the political fixer who got Simon elected in the first place. Paolo realizes he has cursed himself. In the second act, he gives Simon a slow poison. The Doge dies, but not before he resolves the conflict between the warring sides by making Gabriele his successor.

This opera has a unique tinta throughout. The opening passage of the prologue evoke the sea-side setting of Genoa. The narrative writing is particularly delicious (Paolo's Act I scene functions much like Ferrando's in Il Trovatore right down to its spooky climax.) The first great aria is Fiesco's "Il lacerato spirito"." In it, the composer mines the idea from the Miserere in Trovatore with an offstage choir, creating the same atmosphere of dread. The following scene, where Simon learns he is being elected Doge moments after he discovers Maria's body is shattering, with his own personal tragedy bitterly undercut by the acclaim and celebration of the happy throng.

The relationship between fathers and daughters is a central theme in Verdi, from the toxic relations between Nabucco and Angaille to the  first act to the warmer bonds between Luisa Miller and her father and Rigoletto and his daughter. That thread reaches a sort of apotheosis in the first act of this opera, when Boccanegra and "Amelia Grimaldi" realize they are father and daughter, separated for twenty-five years. Their bond drives the plot of this opera forward, particularly the fact that not all the other characters know their secret. The long duet between the characters, and the slow revelation of their secret is one of the most beautiful moments in Verdi, particularly Boccanegra's parting pianissimo cry of "Figlia!"

By contrast, the big scene in the Council Chamber is pure Verdian adrenaline, crystallized into big brass, writing for split main chorus and Boccanegra himself, a towering, heroic figure. It is here that the audience learns that the Doge is kind of an Italian answer to Plato's philosopher-king, ruling with wisdom, justice and mercy with a sense of unity among Italians that hearkens back to the political subtext of operas like Nabucco.

The Council Chamber scene was Boito's idea and marked the biggest change to the original opera, showing the scope of the Doge's political power and his experience as the wise head of the Genovese state. The acts that follow, which chronicle the slow poisoning of Simon and the eventual revelation of the opera's secrets, do not quite compete on the same level but prove a gripping experience in the theater. Verdi also unveils one of his greatest, most loathsome villains in Paolo, the consummate politician who is willing to employ any and all methods: lies, kidnapping and murder, to get what he wants.

Recording Recommendation:

I usually put two or three versions of an opera in this space. However, there aren't that many recordings of Simon Boccanegra on the market--and there's only one that's worth your money.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado
Simon Boccanegra: Piero Capucilli
Amelia, his daughter: Mirella Freni
Gabriele Adorno: José Carreras
Jacopo Fiesco: Nikolai Ghiaurov
Paolo Albiani: José van Dam

This is one of the finest Verdi recordings of the stereo era. It is the crowning achievement of Claudio Abbado's career on the podium, the high point of a long, mostly successful collaboration between Maestro Abbado, the La Scala forces and Deutsche Grammophon.

No, I'm not exaggerating.

In the title role, Piero Capuccili ranges from rage to regality. Mirella Freni (whose actual husband Nikolai Ghiaurov appears here as her stepfather--man that's weird) sings with intoxicating beauty. The "Figlia" duet in Act I is performed here with the utmost tenderness. Carreras, the "other guy" of the Three Tenors, shows his quality as the ardent Gabriele Adorno. But the best performance here might be José van Dam as the oily Paolo, who goes from schemer to killer with terrifying swiftness.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.