Online opera guide and synopsis to Verdi’s SIMON BOCCANEGRA
With the leading role of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi has written a grandiose role portrait. The somewhat convoluted plot offered the composer room for great scenes. Like Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but nevertheless remains an opera for the connoisseur.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
Roles and Synopsis
First version: 1857 in Venice Second version: 1881 in Milan
Francesco Maria Piave (first version) and Arrigo Boito (second version), based on the novel Simon Boccanegra by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez.
Simon Boccanegra, corsair in the service of the Republic of Genoa and later doge (baritone) - Amelia, illegitimate daughter of Boccanegra (soprano) - Fiesco, former leader of the patricians, who later lives disguised as Father Andrea (bass) - Gabriele, patrician and Amelia's lover (tenor) - Paolo, leader of the plebeians (baritone) - Pietro, leader of the plebeians and Paolo's assistant (bass)
DG with Piero Cappuccilli, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov and José Carreras conducted by Claudio Abbado and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan.
The historical background
The historical Simon Boccanegra (who died in 1363) was a representative of the People’s Party and a Ghibelline. He was for many years the Doge of Genoa. His policy was controversial “and numerous attempted murders were carried out against him, the first conspirator was executed on 20 December 1339, the first year of his reign. Boccanegra was always surrounded by a 103-strong mounted bodyguard, as he constantly had to fear for his life. On 23 December 1345, at a people’s assembly convened by himself, he was forced to give up the affairs of government until Boccanegra came back to power in 1356. He was fatally poisoned in 1363” (source: Wikipedia).
Libretto and history of the work
The material of this Genoese doge was processed into literary works by various poets, including Friedrich Schiller. However Verdi did not choose his drama. Though he held the German dramatist in high esteem and had already set works by him to music (Giovanna d’arco, I masnadieri, Luisa Miller), he gave preference to the work of the Spanish poet Gutierrez, who was already Verdi’s Choice for the Trovatore. Verdi thought that the variety and colourfulness of the scenes offered him more possibilities.
This advantage, however, turned out to be a disadvantage too, just like it had happened with the troubadour. The plot, which Piave and Verdi extracted from Gutierrez wild plot, is quite confusing: the work spans several decades, main characters use aliases and the back and forth of political entanglements is quite complicated, which makes it tiring for the listener to follow the plot. Verdi didn’t bother much about this, he was always keen to have scenes at his disposal that were suitable as the basis for his dramatic music.
On the way to the “music drama”
With Simon Boccanegra, Verdi takes a big step in his musical-dramatic conception. Verdi consistently followed the path to music drama which he had begun 10 years earlier with Macbeth. Amazingly, Verdi had taken a step back again after Macbeth and had subsequently written 10 classical number operas in feverish work, including his “Triologia popolare” until he resumed the path to the music drama with Simon Boccanegra. Interestingly, Simon Boccanegra was again followed by a a classical number opera (Ballo in maschera).
In his conception of music drama, Verdi treated each scene as a dramatic and musical unity. The division between recitative and arioso passages became fluid. The orchestra gained in importance. Verdi increased its expressiveness and gave it more presence, at the expense of vocal bravura, which many a theatregoer misses in this opera. To sum up how consistently Verdi was willing to implement his concept of musical drama, is the fact that the main character was not assigned a classical aria, which the general public never really wanted to appreciate.
The Tinta of the Opera
Verdi gave each opera its specific character, the so-called Tinta Musicale. In this opera, first and foremost, darkness is to be mentioned, which takes place on different levels. It begins with the lighting control, goes to the declamatory style of the voices (at the expense of classical number arias) and the choice of voices: Amelia is the only female voice besides an armada of 6 male voices. Moreover the leading role is not assigned to the tenor or the soprano, but to the so-called Verdi Baritone, a baritone voice with dramatic qualities and stamina for long passages in high tessitura.
The leading role of Simon Boccanegra
Verdi wrote in a letter that the leading role of Boccanegra was “a thousand times more difficult” than that of Rigoletto. Almost superhuman demands are made on the baritone. From the most delicate lyricism, proud solemnity to dramatic outbursts and high passages, the singer must be able to express all human emotions with his voice.
The connection to 19th century Italy
Verdi presents Boccanegra as an early “Italian” and unifier, which of course fitted in well with the political situation of the Risorgimento. The time of the composition was only three years before Garibaldi began his fight for freedom in Sicily with the so-called “expedition of the thousands”. However, it must be noted at this point that the council scene (and thus a significant part of the political message) was massively expanded in the 1881 revision, when Italian unification was already a reality.
The review of the premiere and the later arrangement
The first performance in Venice in 1857 was a painful failure for Verdi. The gloom of the work and the musical-dramatic arrangement took their toll. The fact that Verdi was then a famous and respected composer did not protect him from the critical verdict of his contemporaries. Verdi, whose heart often beat for his “wayward children”, asked Arrigo Boito 20 years later to work out a streamlined libretto. However it became apparent how far Verdi had gone musically and dramatically with the Boccanegra over 20 years earlier, because for the new version of 1881, the Verdi of the Otello era had to make only minor changes to the musical structure. The greatest changes were made at the end of the first act, the so-called council chamber scene. This collaboration resulted in the version that is still the most frequently performed today. Although this resulted in numerous improvements, it remained the case that Simon Boccanegra was not one of Verdi’s most popular operas. It is still more admired than loved and, like Macbeth, it is a work for connaisseurs.
SIMON BOCCANEGRA PROLOGO
Abbado’s “perfect” complete recording
Synopsis: A square in Genoa. Two plebeian leaders talk about the next Doge of Genoa. They want to break the power of the patricians. Paolo offers Pietro wealth if he succeeds in helping his candidate to the office. His plan is to have Simon Boccanegra as his puppet in office. Simon is popular with the people, since liberated Genoa’s coasts from the pirates. Pietro agrees, and Paolo offers the office to the summoned Simon. When Simon refuses, Pietro explains to him that as a doge he would be able to free his beloved Mary from her captivity. The doge Fiesco, the leader of the patricians, had his daughter Maria locked away in the palace, who, bore an illegitimate child with Boccanegra. Simon then agrees to run for the plebeians.
A wonderful short introduction leads us into the gloomy mood of this play.
We hear this passage in Claudio Abbado’s 1977 recording, which was one of those fortunate occasions when a “perfect” recording can revive interest in an opera. The entire recording was accompanied by a production at La Scala. The congenial duo Claudio Abbado and Giorgio Strehler created a highly praised work that became a reference recording. It was brought to the stage with a cast that had what it takes. In this opera portrait you have the opportunity to see various scenes from this live TV-production. The following audio excerpt is from the CD.
Che dicesti – Abbado
Synopsis: Pietro then goes off and rallies a crowd of citizens in the square to promote the candidacy of Boccanegra..
We encounter a classical Verdi scene that the composer was looking for: a populist (baritone/bass) manipulates and seduces the masses (choir). Nobody else was able to set such scenes to music so perfectly. Often these are scenes with priests (e.g. in Nabucco), this time it is a politician who moves the masses with a seductive, empathetic melody.
L’altro magion vedete – Santini
Fiesco’s moving, dreary «il lacerato spirito»
Synopsis: Stricken with grief Fiesco steps out of his palace. His daughter has just died in the rooms of the palace. He reproaches himself that he could not protect her and curses her seducer Boccanegra.
Fiesco’s dark and moving aria is accompanied by a miserere from a male choir and laments from the female choir. Together with the restraint orchestral accompaniment Verdi creats a moving effect. The aria of the noble and proud Fiesco shows him from his most vulnerable side. Painful desperation, blasphemous exclamations in forte and a prayer to his daughter demand of the bass to show a wide range of emotions and, accordingly, a wide palette of colours. The piece must never degenerate into a superficial demonstration of vocal power.
After this aria has faded away, the square fills with people, which Verdi skilfully used to end the aria with a long orchestral epilogue, dramatically intensifying the desolation of the moment.
We hear the scene in 2 versions. First in the TV production of the above mentioned Abbado/Strehler production of the Scala.
A te l’estremo … Il lacerato spirito (1) – Ghiaurov
We hear a another interpretation by Ezio Pinza. For many, the Italian was the greatest bass of the twentieth century. His trademark was his sonorous, soft and agile voice of a basso cantante.
A te l’estremo … Il lacerato spirito (2) – Pinza
You will hear a second version from Alexander Kipnis. “There is no other bass with such a rich palette of sounds,” said Kesting (“the great singers”), praising “the magical pianissimo nuances”.
A te l’estremo … Il lacerato spirito (3) – Kipnis
The clash of Boccanegra and Fiesco
Synopsis: Boccanegra enters the square and Fiesco recognizes his hated adversary. Simon, who does not know about Maria’s death, wants to reconcile with him. But Fiesco is relentless. Only if Boccanegra would let him their daugther, would peace be possible. But Simon has to make him the terrible admission that the girl he had hidden in the care of a nurse has been abducted and he does not know her whereabouts. But Fiesco is not ready to reconcile with him until his granddaughter is in his hands.
It is a dark duet of the two deep voices. The baritone’s desperate high F at the end is answered with a pitch-black low F of the bass. The scene is reminiscent of the famous King / Grand Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo.
We hear this scene again from the Abbado/Strehler production. Cappuccilli was the leading Verdi baritone at the end of the 20th century and the Abbado recording is probably his most outstanding role portrait on record besides his Macbeth.
Suoni ogni labbro il mio nome – Ghiaurov / Cappuccilli
Synopsis: Simon wants to enter the palace to see Mary. Fiesco lets him in. Simon learns the terrible news and collapses. Paolo and Pietro appear triumphantly declare, that Simon has won the election. The people hails him as the new doge.
A dramatic scene unfolds, on one side the desperate Fiesco and Boccanegra and on the other side the triumphant crowd.
Oh de Fieschi implacata orrida razza – Hampson / Colambara / Pisaroni
SIMON BOCCANEGRA ACT II
The naturalistic depiction of dawn
Synopsis: At dawn in the Grimaldi Palace. Twenty years have passed since Mary died
Verdi was keen to depict the morning mood in a naturalistic way. A cheerful music gives a hint of gentle waves and birdsong.
Prelude Act 2 (Aurora)
Amelia’s opening aria „Come in quest’ora bruna”
Synopsis: Simon’s daughter Amelia sits in front of the Grimaldi palace and awaits the arrival of her lover Gabriele. She remembers her childhood and her nurse.
Verdi wrote a beautiful, thoughtful aria or Amelia’s first appearance, accompanied by a flute.
Mirella Freni, the Amelia of the Abbado recording, shone in this role. Her bright, sensual soprano, which pours over the audience like “golden rain”, fits perfectly to this role, which, in contrast to many other Verdi heroines, is not in the dramatic spinto Fach, but requires a lyrical soprano.
Come in quest’ora bruna – Freni
Anna Moffo’s lyrical voice also fitted wonderfully to this contemplative aria.
Come in quest’ora bruna – Moffo
The romantic duet of Amelia and Gabriele
Synopsis: Gabriele appears. He is the secret leader of the rebellious patricians and therefore an enemy of the state. Amelia fears for his life and asks him to leave politics. A messenger appears and announces the Doge’s imminent arrival. The Doge wants to promote the marriage of his ally Paolo to Amelia. Amelia leaves to call Father Andrea, who is to marry her as soon as possible. She doesn’t know that Father Andrea is in fact the Fiesco in hiding.
Verdi wrote a beautiful duet for the two lovers. Gabriele begins in the style of a serenade from il Trovatore, accompanied only by a harp. In the middle section of the duet, Amelia introduces a romantic melody (“Ripara i tuoi pensieri”, in the music example below at 3:30), which Gabriele gratefully repeats. Verdi then brings the voices together and lets the music fade away beautifully. The duet ends with a caballetta.
We hear this scene in a recording with Placido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli. Interestingly, Domingo sang the role of Gabriele late in his career, for the first time in 1995. It is amazing because the role is not very difficult (which is of course a relative term!) and for a tenor it is a B-role, so it is a classic beginner’s part a not a debut Role for a world leading tenor.
Cielo di stelle orbato … vieni a mirar la cerula – Domingo / Ricciarelli
Synopsis: Father Andrea comes and tells Gabriele the secret of Amelia. She is in fact not a Grimaldi, but an orphan from a monastery who was adopted by the Grimaldis when their daughter died. Thus she is of lowly rank. For Gabriele, this makes no difference.
Propizio e giunge – Ghiaurov / Carreras
The great daughter-father moment
Synopsis: Trumpets announce the arrival of the Doge. Amelia receives him. The Doge tells her that he has pardoned her exiled brothers as proof of his goodwill. Amelia tells him now her secret that she is not a native Grimaldi, but was once raised as an orphan by a nurse. Before her death she gave her a locket with the portrait of her mother and shows it to him. Boccanegra is thunderstruck. He takes a portrait of Maria from his pocket and Amelia recognizes the same picture as in her locket. The two recognize each other as father and daughter and fall into each other arms in tears.
This duet is another pearl. Verdi knew painfully about the significance of this scene, this emotional daughter-father moment, as he lost his only children at an early age. When the two recognize each other as father and daughter, the music literally explodes. For the end of this duet, Verdi came up with something very special. After the two say goodbye in high spirits, the music fades with a harp solo and the father sings a last tender “figlia” with a high F.
Orfanella in tetto umile – Gheorghiu / Hampson
You will hear a second version from Santini’s highly praised recording of Tito Gobbi and Victoria de los Angeles from the 1950s.
Orfanella in tetto umile – Gobbi / de los Angeles
Synopsis: Paolo awaits the Doge and eagerly awaits his answer. “Give up all hope”, is Simon’s succinct reply. Paolo refuses to accept this and secretly commissions Pietro to kidnap Amelia.
The great council chamber scene
Synopsis: In the council chamber of Genoa. The council is discussing policy towards the rival from Venice. Simon proposes a covenant with the Venetians, he doesn’t want a war between brothers. But Paolo and the plebeians want war. Suddenly a tumult rings out from the nearby palace of the Fieschi. The councilors jump to the window. A mob follows Gabriele and Andrea and approaches the council building. Paolo and Pietro suspect that the kidnapping plot failed and want to flee. But Boccanegra has the doors of the council building closed. He lets Gabriele come in. Gabriele explains that he has killed a plebeian who tried to kidnap Amelia. On his deathbed, the villain confessed to having acted on behalf of a powerful man. Gabriele accuses Simon of being the mastermind and wants to pounce on him. Amelia rushes in and tells of the kidnapping. When she looks at Paolo and claims that the instigator is in the room at this moment, a commotion breaks out. The Doge addresses the rival parties with a big speech to keep them united.
Verdi wanted to expand on this scene with the 1881 revision and added a so-called “pezzo concertato”, an ensemble of choir and soloists. It is introduced by Boccanegra’s great monologue “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo”.
Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo – Cappuccilli
Synopsis: Gabriele is now convinced of Simon’s innocence and hands him his sword. The doge turns to Paolo, the leader of the plebeians. Threateningly, he claims to know the name of the conspirator and that he should curse the vile one together with everyone present. Then Paolo flees the council chamber in horror.
SIMON BOCCANEGRA ACT II
Synopsis: In the Doge’s study. Pietro and Paolo are sitting over maps. Paolo is still shocked from the curse he himself had to cast, forced by the Doge, who owes his office to him. He takes poison from a cupboard and pours it into the cup of the absent Doge. Paolo summons the two prisoners Fiesco and Gabriele. Consumed by hatred for Boccanegra, he offers Fiesco the power. His condition is that he must kill the Doge. When Fiesco refuses, he has him taken back to the dungeon. He turns to Gabriele and claims the Doge has locked Amelia in the palace and keeps her as his mistress. Paolo leaves him alone in the room. Gabriele does not recognize the lie and is beside herself. He swears revenge on the miscreant.
Udisti? … Oh inferno! … Cielo pietoso – Lombardo
Synopsis: Then Amelia appears in the room. Gabriele confronts her with Paolo’s accusations. Amelia swears her loyalty, but cannot yet reveal the secret of her affection for the doge. Then they hear the doge’s steps. At Amelia’s urging, Gabriele hides. Amelia confesses her lover’s name to the Doge. Horrified, he hears the name of Gabriele, his mortal enemy. “Impossible” says Simon, but Amelia threatens to seek death together with Gabriele. Thoughtfully, the doge takes a sip from the cup. When the poison begins to take effect and the doge falls asleep, Gabriele comes out of his hiding place with a dagger in his hand. When Amelia intervenes, Boccanegra wakes up and recognizes the enemy. After a short dispute, Boccanegra reveals himself as Amelia’s father and now Gabriele understands everything. The doge approaches Gabriele. He recognizes that he has to overcome the trenches, which divided Genoa for so long.
A beautiful, dramatic trio emerges.
Oh Amelia ami un nemico – Freni / Cappuccilli / Carreras
Synopsis: Noise comes from the street. Incited by Paolo and Pietro, the followers of the patricians want the Doge dead. Gabriele storms out of the house, ready to convince his allies of the doge’s innocence.
SIMON BOCCANEGRA ACT III
The poignant duet of the two “old” men
Synopsis: Gabriele was able to calm the rebels, and the Doge pardoned them. Only Paolo was sentenced to death. Fiesco, still dressed in the priest’s robe, secretly seeks out Paolo and learns about the poison. Fiesco leaves the dungeon and meets the doge, already weakened by the poison. When Fiesco speaks to him and scornfully prophesies his end, Boccanegra recognises his voice in surprise. Now he wants to take the opportunity to seek reconciliation again twenty years later and tells him the secret of Amelia. Fiesco is overwhelmed by his feelings. Decades of hatred turn into pity for the doge, who is doomed to die, and he tells him about Paolo and the poisoned cup.
This duet is in the first half composed in a way that words are easy to understand and in the second part (in the document from 3:45) it turns into an emotional piece that ends with a funeral march-like accompaniment. Only few bass-baritone duets of the opera literature let such melancholy music sound!
We hear the duet in two versions, with possibly the best bass/baritone pairs in the recording history of this opera.
Piango, perché mi parla – Cappuccilli / Ghiaurov
Gobbi was the leading Verdi baritone of the fifties. We hear him with another great singer, his brother-in-law Boris Christoff, a bass with a pitch-black voice.
Piango, perché mi parla – Gobbi / Christoff
Another dramatic stage death
Synopsis: Gabriele and Amelia join them. Amelia learns that Fiesco is her grandfather and that the two have ended their enmity. They are dismayed to learn of the cup of poison that Simon unknowingly drank, and bid farewell to the doge. When he dies, Fiesco announces his death to the people and appoints Gabriele as the new doge.
This opera ends with another concertato. With a grand gesture Boccanegra blesses the couple and dies. Verdi never lets his protagonists die without an emotional aria…
Gran dio mi benedici – Cappuccilli / Ghiaurov / Freni / Lombardo
DG with Piero Cappuccilli, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov and José Carreras under the direction of Claudio Abbado and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala Milan.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on SIMON BOCCANEGRA by Giuseppe Verdi.
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