Opera Scotland

Simon Boccanegra

Music
Giuseppe Verdi (born Busseto, 10 October 1813; died Milan, 27 January 1901)

Text
Francesco Maria Piave, substantially revised by Arrigo Boito.

Source
Play Simon Bocanegra (1843) by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez (1813-1884).

Premieres
First performance: Venice (Teatro la Fenice), 12 March 1857.
Major Revision: Milan (Teatro alla Scala), 20 March 1881.
First UK performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 27 October 1948.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 4 October 1978.
Scottish Opera premiere: As above.

Background
This opera has never been as popular a favourite as Verdi’s most famous works, but it contains so much that is absolutely magnificent that it thoroughly deserves to feature in the repertoire of every major opera house. The reasons for its modest success are generally seen to be the unrelieved gloom of the plot, and the rather chaotic telling of the story (Gutiérrez was also the source of Il trovatore, itself no masterpiece of structure).

The opera is set in 14th century Genoa, amid the warring factions of Patricians and Plebeians. The nearby sea is an ever-present feature in the orchestration. The climax of the first act, in the Council Chamber, a scene newly-created by Boito, is superbly planned, and the second and third acts present a wonderfully atmospheric dying fall as Simon is poisoned by Paolo and dies having brought about a short-lived reconciliation between the warring factions.

Main Characters
Simon Boccanegra, a Genoese corsair, a plebeian, later Doge of Genoa (baritone)
Jacopo Fiesco, a patrician, later disguised under the name Andrea Grimaldi (bass)
Amelia Grimaldi, in fact Maria, Simon’s daughter, and Fiesco’s granddaughter (soprano)
Gabriele Adorno, a patrician in love with Amelia (tenor)
Paolo Albiani, a goldsmith, a friend of Simon’s, later his deadly enemy (baritone)
Pietro, leader of the plebeians (bass)

Plot Summary
The opera opens with a prologue, set twenty-five years before the main action. Fiesco sees Boccanegra as an undesirably low class suitor for his daughter Maria. However Simon and Maria have already produced a daughter. As the prologue begins, Maria, confined within Fiesco’s palace, has just died, and the baby has disappeared. The crowd of rampaging citizens, oblivious to the grief of the two principal characters, proclaim Simon as the new Doge.

In the opera proper, Fiesco and his supporters have been banished by Simon's government, but he has returned in secret to the vicinity of Genoa, using the name Grimaldi. He is leading a conspiracy to depose Boccanegra. He has also adopted and raised a foundling child and named her Amelia. This girl is, coincidentally, and unknown to him, his natural granddaughter. She is being courted by both Gabriele (whom she loves) and Paolo (whom she does not). In a superbly moving recognition scene Simon and Amelia discover their relationship. Paolo, jealous of Simon, has Amelia abducted, though she escapes. He later succeeds in poisoning Simon, and the final scenes, very slow and intensely moving, show the reconciliation between Simon and Fiesco, and their approval of the match between Gabriele and Amelia.

RECORDINGS

DGG (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1977

Conductor: Claudio Abbado
Orchestra of La Scala Milan
Piero Cappuccilli (Simon), Mirella Freni (Amelia), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fiesco).

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Giorgio Strehler production at La Scala. Before Strehler and Abbado got their hands on it there was always a tendency to make allowances for the inadequacies of the opera, in spite of patches of greatness. The perfection of everything in this enterprise means that such apologies are no longer necessary. The opera comes across as a blazing masterpiece. Cappuccilli was the greatest Italian baritone in succession to Tito Gobbi, and had already recorded it before, and sung it memorably at the Verona arena. Here his characterization has real depth and is beautifully phrased. Freni and Ghiaurov give great performances and Gabriele is sung by José Carreras in gloriously uninhibited form. It would be surprising if there were anyone who managed to squeeze in to one of the performances when La Scala came to London in 1976 and does not have this recording as a souvenir.

DG (1 DVD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1995

Conductor: James Levine. Director: Giancarlo Del Monaco. Designer: Michael Scott.
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Vladimir Chernov (Simon), Kiri Te Kanawa (Amelia), Robert Lloyd (Fiesco).

This production may have seemed over-traditional in style when it opened – everything seems beautifully naturalistic and in period. However the stage and musical direction provide a superb framework for a cast which would be hard to beat today. Chernov is an excellent Verdi stylist, without quite having the experience to achieve the depth that Cappuccilli manages. Te Kanawa and Lloyd give classic performances of their roles – her voice soars gloriously in the council chamber scene. He sings nobly and projects character by means of appropriate use of stillness. Fiesco was one of his best roles right from his first attempt in Glasgow in 1978. Gabriele is sung by Domingo, bringing out the similarities in style the part bears to the later Otello.

OPERA RARA ORVC302 (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1975

Conductor: John Matheson
BBC Concert Orchestra
Sesto Bruscantini (Simon), Josella Ligi (Amelia), Gwynne Howell (Fiesco).

For Simon Boccanegra the original 1857 version is radically different, and the opportunity to make comparisons is fascinating. The plot seems much more convoluted, with greater emphasis on the abduction of Amelia by Paolo. The council chamber scene, invented later by Boito, is sadly missed. The differences are apparent right from the start – the revised prelude introduces us to the quiet but foreboding seascape. By contrast, the original launches in with an effective warlike fanfare which becomes a theme running through the opera (and requiring complete removal in the later version).

The performance is mostly excellent. Sesto Bruscantini is not generally remembered as a Verdi singer (though he was superb in Scottish Opera’s Traviata and Falstaff), but he gives a moving performance as the Doge, ably seconded by Gwynne Howell. Josella Ligi is good, though not as great as her rivals – but then her music was to gain most from the changes. The Canadian tenor André Turp is fine as Gabriele.

The Cast

Amelia Grimaldi
 in fact Maria, Simon's daughter
Captain
 
Gabriele Adorno
 a patrician, in love with Amelia
Jacopo Fiesco
 a patrician, later disguised as Andrea Grimaldi
Maid
 to Amelia
Paolo Albiani
 a goldsmith, initially a friend of Simon
Pietro
 leader of the plebeians
Simon Boccanegra
 a Genoese corsair, later Doge

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