Verdi and Simon Boccanegra
Giuseppe Verdi didn't always have the kind of popular success that he would have liked for some of his operas. La traviata, for instance, which had its premiere at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, was decidedly unsuccessful its first time out in 1853. Audiences didn't quite know how to react to this intimate drama about a courtesan and her naïve young lover. But with some crucial revisions and a successful production at the Teatro S. Benedetto in Venice in 1854 its success was finally assured. Another opera, Don Carlo, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1867 not only without success with the public, but without the dramatic effect that the composer thought it should have. There followed a lengthy period of revision until, seventeen years later in 1884, Verdi produced a revision that he was finally satisfied with and, yes, it was a triumph with the audience.
It's interesting to note that a number of his operas fall into this category, even to the point of having two different versions like I Lombardi and Stiffelio which later became the operas Jerusalem and Aroldo. It wasn't at all unusual for Verdi, if he truly believed in an earlier work, to return to that work and make major revisions in order for the opera to meet its full potential. Such was the case of the Simon Boccanegra. First premiered in 1857, the public found the plot too dense and the dialogue convoluted. Even though the music critics of the day found favor with it, it was virtually abandoned by the composer and left on the shelf. But the 1880s found an older, more experienced Verdi ready to embark on a remarkable period of renewal in his work. To prepare for that moment of renewal, he suggested a revision of the earlier work, an opera featuring intense human relationships about which the composer cared deeply.
Verdi was an incredibly busy man during the 1850s. The decade began with Rigoletto and fast on its heels were the operas Il trovatore and La traviata. Then came Les vêpres siciliennes for the Paris Opera, Simon Boccanegra, Aroldo and Un ballo in maschera. That's a remarkable list of seven masterworks, five of which could stand alone as the definition of a great career even without his having written earlier works like Macbeth and later works like Aida, Falstaff and Otello.
The first three of his middle-period works quickly became established as standard Italian repertoire for the opera houses of the world but, at least in the public's mind, it was difficult for him to surpass the success of these works. Although it was well received in Paris, Les vêpres siciliennes failed to be revived by the Opéra because of its length and strenuous vocal demands. After returning to Italy his librettist for La traviata, Francesco Maria Piave, suggested another work for the Fenice in Venice. Negotiations with the theatre began and the choice of subject eventually became a play by the Spanish playwright Antonio García Gutiérrez, whose El trovador had provided Verdi with the story for Il trovatore. What perhaps drew the composer to this source was the mix of familial relationship (Simon and his daughter Amelia) with politics. As we know, Verdi wrote some of his greatest music and poured out his most intense emotions into duets between fathers and daughters (Luisa Miller, Aida, Rigoletto), or father-figures and daughter-figures (La traviata). A brief look at his early life and first marriage might give us a clue as to why.
Verdi was born in Roncole, outside of the Northern Italian town of Busseto. Although he would lead his biographers to believe that he was of humble origins, his father was actually from a middle-class, literate family who supported himself as an innkeeper. Verdi showed musical promise early on and received musical instruction from the local clergy. By his own testimony, we know that he wrote hundreds of little pieces for band, organ and choir between the ages of 13 and 18. His parents encouraged his musical achievement and in 1831 he moved to the village of Busseto in order to live in the home of Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi was a merchant of some means who also was something of a musician and he became like a second father to the teenaged Verdi. While the young man was in residence he gave keyboard and singing lessons to Barezzi's daughter, Margherita. As often seems to happen in these situations, teacher and student fell in love and before long they were engaged to be married.
Verdi's first year of conservatory study in Milan was subsidized by Barezzi, and after four years of study there, and establishing himself as a young composer of promise, he returned to Busseto in 1836 where he became director of the Philharmonic Society, taught private music lessons and finally married his beloved Margherita. They had two children, a girl Virginia and a boy Icilio, about a year apart. Tragically, both these children died, the girl in 1838 and the boy in 1839. And in the midst of writing a comedy, Un Giorno di regno, on commission from La Scala, Margherita contracted encephalitis and died in June, 1840. The comedy premiered three months later and was a complete failure.
Armchair musicologists can't help but wonder if the loss of his entire family in a two-year period had something to do with the sensitivity and lyrical expression that Verdi poured into operas whose stories dealt with fathers and their relationships with their daughters. The operas Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, La forza del destino, Aida, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra all possess plots which are dependent on the special character of a father's love for his daughter. And musically the duets between father and daughter in these operas are highpoints of unsurpassed beauty. Simon Boccanegra is a prime example of this sensitivity, and in fact the emotional heart of this opera is the recognition duet between Simon and Amelia.
It is surprising that the opera didn't have more of a success at its premiere in 1857. It wasn't until 1880, when Verdi was coaxed out of retirement to consider working on Otello with the librettist and composer Arrigo Boïto, that the subject of a revised Simon Boccanegra came from his publisher. He thought the revision of the work might make a great testing ground for the two artists and, indeed, that proved to be true. The revised work had its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1881 and it was a tremendous success with the baritone Victor Maurel as Simon, soprano Anna d'Angeri as Amelia and the tenor Francesco Tamagno as Amelia's lover, Gabriele. Verdi was so pleased with this cast that he created the roles of Iago and Otello for Maurel and Tamagno.
Libretto & Source
The drama Simon Boccanegra by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez (1812-1884) is as convoluted a plot as Gutiérrez' earlier work, El Trovador, upon which Verdi based his opera Il trovatore. The original play, which concerned the 14th century doge of the city-state of Genoa, was written while Gutiérrez was the Spanish consul in Genoa and as a result of being introduced to the local history of this venerable Italian seaport. The title character is actually a combination of the two historical Boccanegra brothers, Egidio, who had the reputation of a buccaneer and Simon, who was actual doge of Genoa and who was so popular with the people that he was elected twice, once in 1339 and later in 1356. Simon was a fascinating figure for someone like Verdi who loved stories of political intrigue. The historical Simon was a plebeian, a man of the people who constantly struggled to keep plebeian and patrician factions from destroying the city by their constant fighting. He was eventually poisoned at a dinner by one of his enemies and he died, painfully, before all the gathered guests.
This political history was certainly enough to stimulate the dramatic imagination of Verdi. But it was the personal and familial angle that Gutiérrez gave to Simon in the play that probably most attracted Verdi to the story as something perfect for operatic treatment. In the play, Simon has fathered a child out of wedlock with the daughter of one of his enemies. The child is kidnapped, and the mother dies almost at the exact moment he is elected doge. Many years later he is reunited with his daughter through sheer coincidence. But he realizes to his horror that she is betrothed to a member of the enemy camp and has been raised unknowingly by her grandfather, the very man who plots Simon's demise.
What was the cause of Verdi's attraction to this strange plot? Well certainly not the complexities of the story. It was the human relationships involved here, especially the unique bond which exists between father and daughter, something that Verdi might have enjoyed in the 1850s if it hadn't been for the tragic deaths of his wife and two children that had occurred many years before (cf. the article, "Verdi and Simon Boccanegra").
Because Verdi was in Paris in 1856 during much of the drafting of the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, some of the work on the libretto was done by Giovanni Montanelli, an Italian expatriate poet living in France. Verdi, as usual, micro-managed the production of the libretto. In fact, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, he gave Piave a precisely detailed prose sketch of the story as he wished it to unfold and insisted that this sketch be used in order for the opera to pass the censors. Piave's completed work is as brilliant as anything he created for the composer, but it must be remembered that Verdi was quite exacting in what he wanted from a librettist: above all, brevity, as well as well-chosen images that could easily allow the music to express character and emotion.
Arrigo Boïto (1842-1918) wrote additional verses for Simon as part of the 1881 revision, most importantly the council chamber scene (Act I, scene ii) which is entirely new. Verdi used this work as a testing ground for the younger librettist, for possible work in the future. We now know, of course, that Boïto's future with Verdi would result in two of the greatest works of the Italian lyric stage: Falstaff and Otello.
The Music of Simon Boccanegra
Simon Boccanegra takes place in Italy's greatest seaport, Genoa. The city has a venerable history and has been a center of commerce for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Even today, most of the goods shipped to Northern Italy and Central Europe come through this port city on the Ligurian Sea. In the time of its first doge, Simon Boccanegra, it was busy fighting off other Italian city-states for domination of the trade routes. The sea and all things nautical are crucial, then, as background to the story of Boccanegra and Verdi acknowledges that in the score, more so in the revision of 1881 than in the original 1857 opera.
One of the first things we notice about the later version is the lack of an overture, something that the earlier work had. The original overture was one of those orchestral fantasias that utilize certain important themes from the opera. This was discarded by Verdi in 1881 in favor of a simple orchestral prelude based on a theme that has a noble but gentle wave motion in it, imitative of the sea which permeates the atmosphere of the whole drama.
Elsewhere in the opera the evocation of the sea is even more obvious. Listen to the opening of Act III and the surging of the orchestra, the wave motion matching not only the physical atmosphere of a storm brewing in the seaport but the psychological tension of the dramatic moment. Later on in this act, when the mortally ill Simon enters the palace he says, "Let me breathe the sweet air of the open sky! What relief…the sea breeze! The sea, the sea! Seeing it again brings back to me memories of triumphs and of glorious deeds!" The orchestral accompaniment underneath this text gives Verdi the opportunity to evoke a gentle zephyr blowing off of the Gulf of Genoa.
Sea breezes, gentle waves and even birdsongs get involved in the glorious opening of Act I which updates the story 25 years and reveals a garden overlooking the water. Here Amelia reflects on her love for the young patrician, Gabriele. In a gorgeous evocation of nature, Verdi pours out one unusual orchestral color after another, particularly an odd little measure of birdcalls that Verdi gives over to two clarinets.
One of the major revisions of the opera was Verdi's and Boïto's addition of the council chamber scene to the opera. Dramatically it provides a much more exciting finish to Act I than what we had previously, and musically we hear passages that point to Otello and Falstaff, the next two projects on Verdi's desk. In fact, the opening of the council chamber scene sounds as if it's a study for the scene in the Great Hall of Cyprus in Act III of Otello. It has the mature energy and quirky harmony of the later work.
There are other unusual aspects of this work, the lack of any formal arias for the title character, the somewhat secondary position of the tenor and, in fact, the presence of only one female role. But the heart of the opera is the first act duet between Simon and Amelia. It is ripe with the kind of lyricism, tunefulness and drama that we come to expect of the mature Verdi.