Simon Boccanegra contains some of Verdi’s finest music from any period of his career. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece. But it has problems – ‘…profound score but convoluted plot’, said Anthony Tommasini in an April 2016 New York Times review of a production at the Met.
We can’t ignore those problems really; a theatre audience is going to notice. But acknowledging them also helps an audient appreciate music that is so magnificent that it surpasses deficiencies in the underlying story.
The Boccanegra we watch today is a conflation – in a sense – of two versions of the work written 23 years apart. The first version was performed at La Fenice, Venice in 1857. In 1880-81, Verdi did a test-run of his new librettist, Otello’s Arrigo Boito, with a revised version that premiered at Milan’s La Scala. Strands of music from two different periods of Verdi’s career thereby sit side-by-side in the work, but the work doesn’t entirely rethink 1857 dramatic conceptions.
Abramo Basevi, who wrote the first critical study of Verdi’s operas 157years ago, said that he had to read the libretto of the first version SIX TIMES (his caps) before he could understand what was going on. Simon Boccanegra in either version compresses historical events that occurr over a vast time span. When not entranced by the music, you often wish you had enough backstory to jump over the plot’s many elisions. Part of the problem: Verdi seems to have come up with the prose synopsis as a first step and told his first librettist Francesco Maria Piave just to render it in verse. It might have been better to fix the problems there and then. Of course, they create fascinating details to evaluate in any consideration of Simon Boccanegra’s musical features.
In the 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra, the work is prefaced by an overture – a typical 19th century pot-pourri of musical themes that will arise in the course of the work. 1881’s Boccanegra begins instead with strings playing a generous, languid, undulating theme, redolent of the maritime setting (Venice) of the work. Verdi habitually took great care with the ‘tinta’ (or colouring) of a work and this re-orchestration is a major element in his lightening of the tone of the earlier version.
Even with richer accompaniment, the recitativo outlining of the set-up is maintained effectively in the 1881 version as Paolo and Pietro conspire to elect Simon doge (Che dicesti?…) The scene is almost Shakespearian in its economical propositions. It remains for Paolo to convince Simon that becoming doge helps him gain access to Maria, his beloved, who is locked up in the palace of her father, Fiesco. Paolo asks only that, in return, he have a share in Simon’s power. From here to the end of the Prologue, the 1857 and 1881 scores roughly coincide, though Verdi made minor changes in 1881.
Paolo’s L’atra magion vedete? gives an ominous account of what’s going on inside the Fiesco mansion. His strophic ballad (and its terrifically crisp scurrying string accompaniment) is a good foil for the recitative and aria in which Fiesco, entering, pours out the grief of a father whose daughter has been seduced by a suitor (Simon) of whom he doesn’t approve. Though simple in its form, Il lacerato spirito covers a vast range of emotions, from railing recitative to romanza in a dark F sharp minor (terrific dark brass accompaniment) to heavenly beseeching. Verdi was particularly careful to say that he wanted a bass here who could comfortably get to the low notes, ‘a voice of iron…with something in it of the inexorable, the prophetic, the supulchral’. (He noted that these were not qualities to be found in the voice of Edouard De Reszke, his Fiesco in 1881.) The highly emotional orchestral postlude, which critic James Hepokoski describes as a ‘double groundswell’, is from 1857, and it’s worth noting that Verdi possessed this emotional range even before the 1880s maturing of his style.
Fiesco stays around for Simon’s re-emergence and they launch into the first of their two duets (‘Suona ogni labbro’). This may be the moment to say something about Verdi’s treatment of traditional forms because they help us see how Verdi continually moulded Italian opera conventions to his own requirements. Yes in 1881 there are greater variations, but even in 1857 Verdi was beginning to re-shape traditional paradigms.
Consistent with the usual preliminaries of a scena, Simon looks forward finally to being Maria’s husband, but Fiesco, over throbbing syncopations, tells Simon that fate must have been blind to bring him within his wrathful grasp. This more active setting of regular rhyme (‘Qual cieco fato’) fulfils the traditional function of a tempo d’attaca. Simon stands on his record (‘Sublimarmi a lei sperai’) to one of those Verdi marching melodies we associate with pride. But Fiesco slows him down with earnest single crotchets: ‘Se concedermi vorrai’ (If you want to earn my pardon you must give me the granddaughter who is offspring of your wicked love). A knowledgeable Italian audient of the time might have thought we had entered the formal section known as the adagio, but in fact even here Verdi is playing with expectations (and was doing this in 1857): the true adagio is Simon’s explanation that Fiesco’s granddaughter has disappeared by the seaside – ‘Del mar sul lido’, a lilting number complete with barcarolling woodwind to emphasise the maritime setting (and tint). As Simon fails to elicit Fiesco’s understanding and Fiesco leaves, a poignant oboe underscores Simon’s sorrow at the rebuffal. Simon then launches into a denunciation of the Fiesci clan before searching the house for Maria. Discovering her dead, his grieving is interrupted by trite festivities as the people come to proclaim him doge – a brilliant finale, but also Verdi’s substitution for the traditional tempo di mezzo and rousing cabaletta that would have concluded a duet allowed to run its traditional course.
Other duets in the work show similar adjustments. In 1857, Amelia’s Act I aria had climaxed with a cabaletta; in 1881, she and Gabriele plunge straight into their duet. Later, in Act II, when Gabriele accuses Amelia of being in love with Simon, they plunge straight into the tempo d’attaca. In many ways, traditional form was useful for conveying meaning: a contemporary audience would have known that that scena was omitted as an expression of urgency.
Mention of Amelia however brings us to the spot where confusions in the story really flare up. At curtain rise on Act I, the soprano onstage gives an account of her upbringing which suggests she might be Simon’s daughter. But she lives in the home of the Grimaldis and we read in the cast list that Andrea Grimaldi is Fiesco in disguise. Has Simon’s daughter ended up in the lair of his enemies? Situation contributes to meaning. In the absence of plausible explanations audiences tend to postulate their own reasons and they may not be the ones the writers intended.
In any case, Amelia’s opening aria (Come in quest’ora bruna…) is introduced by what Hepokoski describes as one of the ‘jewels of the 1881 score’ – the evocative tone-picture of dawn by the sea described by tremolo-ing and trilling violins, gentle woodwinds, viola swells… Amelia sings a French-influenced ternary aria. It is mostly from the 1857 score except for the more sophisticated accompaniment. Gabriele’s trovatore-like offstage singing interrupts and then we plunge into their first duet. Amelia proves she knows what he’s up to, plotting against the doge. But the doge’s imminent arrival is announced.
Before he can exit, Gabriele is detained by Fiesco. Thus begins their duet (‘Propizio ei giunge…la figlia dei Grimaldi…’) in which Gabriele says that he doesn’t care if Amelia is not an actual Grimaldi; he loves her just the same. The big difference here between this version and 1857 is that it ends with a kind of religious scene in which Fiesco blesses Gabriele as his son-in-law. In 1857 they had both sworn vengeance on Simon; Gabriele for murdering his father; Fiesco for the death of his first daughter. Perhaps the earlier version provided better ‘backstory’, but musically 1881 is richer.
A march, spiced with Beethoven-like offbeat accents, introduces the doge, and perhaps the most moving scene in the opera – the reconciliation of father and daughter, that relationship of course being one of the most important in the Verdi universe. This is also the first duet in the opera to pass through all five stages – very traditional, even if the adagio, Amelia’s ‘Orfanella il tetto umile…’ is unusual in not being static but musically evolving in keeping with each new piece of information. The tempo di mezzo returns to the former parlante (‘speech-like’) style as Simon confirms that Amelia is his long-lost daughter. I can hear the audience conversations at this point:
‘So Amelia is definitely Boccanegra’s missing daughter?’
‘And she’s his enemy Fiesco’s granddaughter, the daughter of Fiesco’s daughter Maria, though unbeknownst to the older man.’
‘Uh-huh – ‘
‘But called “Amelia” because she’s the substitute for another dead Fiesco daughter, Amelia?’
‘Amelia Grimaldi, not Amelia Fiesco?’
Fortunately, the swelling of the music carries us away and the cabaletta ending contains one of the most moving statements in the opera – Simon’s ‘Figlia…a tal nome io palpito’ (‘Daughter’, my heart leaps at the word).
But we are not quite done with glossing-over of essential plot points. Simon has instantly accepted Amelia’s description of Paolo as a villain (‘perfido’). Where were the inner turns that led Simon from grateful debtor to disapproving prospective father-in-law? Perhaps in some instances Simon Boccanegra would have been better off if its revision had lengthened (or unpacked) it; if it had become Verdi’s opera cycle.
In 1857, the finale to Act I was a festival, complete with ‘Hymn to the Doge’, African dancing girls, and ‘party music’ (to quote Verdi commentator, Julian Budden). The finale in 1881 (the famed Council Chamber Scene) dispenses with the tinny pomp of the earlier version. Its absorption of an urgent political dimension lifts the opera onto a plane of higher intentions.
The scene begins with Simon juggling various peace proposals. This council is interrupted by the sounds of rebellion (one of Verdi’s most detailed musical depictions of riot) but when the chorus demands the death of the rebel Gabriele, Gabriele counters that he has killed Amelia’s abductor Lorenzino (yes, she’s been abducted) before Lorenzino could name the instigator of the kidnap plot. Gabriele is about to strike Simon whom he suspects, when Amelia enters and gives her account of the kidnapping. Just as the plebeian and patrician councillors are about to come to blows, suspecting each other of the crime, Simon steps in with his appeal to end the perennial squabbling which plagues their city. As Julian Budden points out in his The Operas of Verdi, 1881’s revision reveals a nobility to Simon that may not have seemed evident in 1857. His monologue at this point, ‘Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!’ is, in Budden’s words, ‘Verdi’s finest monument to the baritone voice’.
The scene ends with Amelia implicitly identifying Paolo as kidnapping mastermind. Without naming names, Simon commits Paolo to cursing the perpetrator and Paolo must implicate himself. The ending of the Act is rivetting: stark intervals – hurtling wrath. But does Simon Boccanegra become clearer?
One can understand the patriotic Verdi’s desire to broaden the scope of this drama with a political canvas but the problem with Boccanegra, going back two decades, had always been too much to say. It’s not that a political dimension can’t exist side by side with the personal. Another Verdi/Piave opera, 1851’s Rigoletto (based on a play by Victor Hugo), successfully combines the personal and the political: the despot is a libertine. But in Simon Boccanegra there are two competing goals, as revealed by Simon toward the end of this Act – ‘E vo gridando: pace! E vo gridando: amor’ – All that I ask is peace/ All that I ask if love.
All this aside, the broad historical background provides a grander stage for the display of Simon’s nobility. And Boito’s idea of Paolo cursing himself is brilliant stagecraft, powerful enough to make us forget our demand for logical clarity.
Act II of the 1857 version of this opera began in the major key with which the festive Act I had ended (in accordance with tradition). But from now on in the 1881 version, Verdi takes care to keep Paolo curtailed for the most part in the dark C minor in which he implicates himself at the end of Act I.
In fact, one of the major gains of the 1881 revision is the deeper portraiture of Paolo. In 1857, his ‘Me stesso ho maledetto’ consisted of a mere eleven bars. Twenty three years later it’s replaced by some 40 bars of self-disclosure. Paolo poisons Simon’s drink and additionally tries to convince Fiesco to kill Simon in his sleep (why settle for one method when we can have two?). Fiesco loathes the cowardly suggestion and leaves, but Paolo gets in Gabriele’s ear about Simon’s lascivious intentions toward Amelia.
Gabriele’s outburst aria, dating from 1857, shows how the younger Verdi could reverse traditional operatic forms, as a howling swirl (‘Sento avvampar dell’anima’) precedes a largo in which Gabriele yearns for Amelia to come back to him ‘spotless’. It’s almost Rigoletto-like in its ‘vil razza’ raging, revealing perhaps that there should be baritonal qualities to this tenor voice.
Other highlights of the Act include Gabriele and Amelia’s duet (which skips the normal scena introduction) and the Terzetto (‘Perdon, perdon Amelia…’) when Gabriele discovers that Simon is not a competitor for Amelia’s heart but her father , and the three principals reveal their inner thoughts in one of Verdi’s most beautiful short ensembles.
1881’s Act III opens with furtive rebellion music, accompanied by scurrying lower strings. The captain of the crossbowmen gives Fiesco back his sword, but it’s cold comfort for Fiesco (aka Grimaldi) as his Guelphs have been defeated (wait a minute! Guelphs? Who are all these factions?) Then Fiesco encounters Paolo on his way to be executed for having taken part in the battle on the part of the insurgents (a keening C minor melody as Paolo explains that his demon made him do it). He reveals to Fiesco that he has poisoned Simon. Then the wedding chorus (a bright C major in the pool of Paolo’s C minor) is heard. Paolo despairs at having lost Amelia. Fiesco, deducing that it was Paolo who abducted Amelia, happily lets him go to the block.
Verdi had said, in a November 1880 letter to his publisher Giulio Ricordi, that the revision of Boccanegra should introduce ‘more contrast and variety, more life’. Boito introduced marvellous scenic effects, such as the gradual extinguishing of torches so that there will be darkness at the moment when Amelia returns to the poisoned Simon’s side.
But first the darkening is accompanied by an evocative ensemble of horns in unison, and then halting chromatic chords in the strings over a low pedal note accompany Simon’s entrance. If only I could have died at sea, says Simon. ‘Better that way than this,’ says Fiesco stepping forward, still intent on killing him – as long as it’s openly. Thus begins their second duet. But this time their voices are distinguished through contrasting harmony rather than contour. Simon reveals that Amelia is Fiesco’s granddaughter and in this moment of mutual grief their voices unite. Simon introduces a melody ‘of reconciliation’. In 1857 it had been heard at the end of the overture. As the duet ends, halting rhythms signal Simon’s waning strength.
The last scene in 1857 began with Hymn to the Doge music, an ironic effect given that Simon is now aware he has been poisoned. There are effective contrasts here as Amelia arrives with Gabriele – ‘Oh happiness! At last now the dreadful hatred is over!’ ‘Everything’s over, daughter,’ counters the dying Simon.
The stage is set for the final quartet which Basevi, in his 1859 book, called the ‘most beautiful piece of the opera’. It begins in moving stillness as Simon offers his blessing (‘Gran Dio, li benedici’) to the newly-wed Amelia and Gabriele, and builds movingly as first Amelia, then Gabriele, then Fiesco add their voices. ‘All human happiness is deception’, observes Fiesco in bass interjections. Even though the chorus swells this number to a stirring fortissimo, the opera ends sombrely. Fiesco proclaims the new doge, Gabriele, and the people call instead for Boccanegra over a dissonant diminished harmony. The chilling starkness is genius but this ending dates from 1857. ‘No, he is dead,’ says Fiesco as bells toll mournfully and the chorus prays for peace in indeterminate open fifths.
Clearly this work consists of a multitude of musical riches. Dramatically-speaking, Simon might have been a more dynamic hero, and the political dimension might have fallen more effectively into place, if the simple plotline had been a father actively and desperately searching for his long-lost daughter against the political upheavals of his reign. But fortunately, people forgive faulty drama graced with good music and so much of Boccanegra is so good. Listening to it you tend to ask, ‘What is this great number?’ before asking, ‘What’s it about?’
Verdi might have considered the opera ‘passable’, as he wrote in a March 1857 letter to Vincenzo Torelli. But the public has decided that the 1881 revision at least elevates the work to canonic status. Simon Boccanegra is another example of a work of art that doesn’t have to be perfect to be a masterpiece.
Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2016
A version of this essay appeared in Opera Australia programs for a production of Simon Boccanegra, 2016