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Blog entries posted during January 2012

Tickets for “The Festival Play of Daniel” Available January 1

LA Opera’s Education and Community Programs department is proud to present two performances of The Festival Play of Daniel at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Friday, March 16, and Saturday, March 17, at 7:30 pm. As a special gift to the community, these performances are free to the public. However, advance tickets are required for admission. (Note: there will be a $1 handling fee for tickets reserved by phone or online and a four-ticket limit per household, subject to availability.) The Festival Play of Daniel will be conducted by Richard Seaver Music Director James Conlon and will bring several hundred volunteer and professional performers together to tell the story of the courageous Old Testament prophet Daniel.

The Festival Play of Daniel replaces a previously announced world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by composer Alexander Prior and librettist Velina Hasu Houston, which has been postponed until 2014 in order to give the creators more time to complete their work.

Tickets can be reserved online by clicking here or by phone at (213) 972-8001 beginning on Wednesday, February 1, at 10am.

Albert’s Wild Explosion

By Gavin Plumley

Benjamin Britten is often considered a severe composer. It is a somewhat myopic view of the man and his work. After all, his first opera was the 1941 American comedy Paul Bunyan. But it wasn’t until 1945 and the premiere of his searing tragedy Peter Grimes that Britten really made an impact. It was followed by an equally intense chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia. In order to impress, Britten wrote serious operas about fundamental issues within society. So the choice to write a comedy next was somewhat surprising. Ringing the changes, Albert Herring first appeared in June 1947. Premiered within the sylvan surroundings of Glyndebourne and set in rural Suffolk, it eschews the death and high drama of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. At its premiere, the critics and cognoscenti felt it was no more than mere entertainment. But nothing is ever quite what it seems. Although conceived as a comedy, Albert Herring is just as focused a study of society’s mores and morals as any of Britten’s operas. And through the smiles and high jinks of Albert’s drunken escapade we learn much about the world in which we live.


It is perhaps most telling that, like Peter Grimes, Britten set his comic opera close to home. Britten was born in the Suffolk seaside town of Lowestoft. Now rather neglected due to the North Sea’s flagging oil industry, it was a smart provincial town back in 1913. His studies took him away to London but Britten remained devoted to his home county. Even while in America during the Second World War, thoughts of England remained. A broadcast by E.M. Forster about the Suffolk-born poet George Crabbe not only inspired Peter Grimes but also prompted a return home, when Britten bought a house near to Aldeburgh. Tapping into the wellspring of his creativity and identity, Peter Grimes proved to be an audacious and personal masterpiece. Its pessimistic look at provincial society was a surprisingly negative theme to explore in the months immediately following the end of the War. Yet despite its cynicism, the opera placed Britten on the international map as performances spread across Europe and into America. Commissions flowed and Britten became the darling of post-War music.


A second string quartet, commissions for orchestral variations (“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) and a new association with the opera house at Glyndebourne in rural Sussex followed after the premiere of the opera. Britten, keen to preserve individuality, quit the company at Sadler’s Wells where Peter Grimes had first met a dazzled public and made plans for his own English Opera Group. Working with the artist John Piper and the writer and director Eric Crozier, he was going to create his own work on his own terms. John Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, was persuaded that his pet opera house would benefit from an association with these young movers and shakers, confirmed by the 1946 premiere there of The Rape of Lucretia. Like Grimes, this new opera was a bold tragedy of personal conviction in the face of societal pressure. A theme was emerging in Britten’s work.


The choice of writing a comedy after Grimes and Lucretia offered welcome relief to audience and creators alike. Britten had been pondering an opera based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and had discussed the idea with Ronald Duncan—the librettist of Lucretia—but it was dropped in favour of Eric Crozier’s cheeky new scheme:


“I suggested a comic opera based on Maupassant’s short story, Le rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea, especially when he saw how easily the action could be translated from Maupassant’s France to his own native coast of East Suffolk. We made a brief sketch of how the story might be adapted as an opera, and, before I quite understood what was happening, it was agreed that I should undertake the libretto.”


Britten worked fast, demanding intense concentration and rapid drafting. By October 1946 (just three months after the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia) Britten was already asking Crozier “How’s Albert?” Inspired by the performances of tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, in Così fan tutte and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Sadler’s Wells during the war, Crozier and Britten knew that Pears had great comic potential for the central role. Crozier gifted Britten a Penguin Books translation of the Maupassant and, in return, Britten gave Crozier a copy of the libretto of Falstaff. Both were going to learn how to write operatic comedy from the very best.


Britten added to this delightful mixture of Mozart, Smetana and Verdi with his own passion for Suffolk. And not only did Crozier transplant the whole tale from Normandy to seaside England, but everything within the libretto had direct signifiers within Britten’s world: the village of Loxford is an invention, but clearly linked to Yoxford just outside Aldeburgh; Albert Herring is named after a grocer from nearby Tunstall; Lady Billows got her surname from a colleague at the British Council; Florence was the soprano Joan Cross’s maid; Nancy was named after the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans; and Harold Wood is a station on the way from Suffolk to London. It was a roman à clef of a libretto, though no direct comparisons or criticisms were intended. On the surface, Britten’s opera was a loving homage to his rural Suffolk and, with the advent of the motorcar, a landscape and society that was beginning to disappear.


Britten wrote a charming score to match. The children in the village sing variants of folk songs and nursery rhymes. Lady Billows speaks in sub-Elgarian tones, while the local dignitaries, the mayor and the policeman, have all the hallmarks of Gilbert and Sullivan’s parodied Englishmen. On the surface, then, Albert Herring is a delicious comedy about English manners intended for easy consumption after the more difficult tragedies of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. But like Così fan tutte, The Bartered Bride and Falstaff, there is a richer and more important seam that runs through the piece. Britten, as ever, digs beneath the surface. The village of Loxford is clearly a stuffy place. Rules are obeyed and nobody can step out of line. Albert’s mother, in particular, keeps a firm grip on society ways. Obsessed by the ticking of her clock (immediately apparent in the score), she is a rigid unbending moral force within the opera. Albert is desperate to break away.


Despite his ambitions, Albert has no immediate musical personality. While the adults are rigid caricatures—familiar to anyone who knows BBC comedy or The Pirates of Penzance—the young freethinkers occupy a simple and carefree sound world. Albert is caught between them. Sid and Nancy are emblematic of the youngsters’ happy-go-lucky domain. So while Albert is the weary worker in the shop—“I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot to do”—Sid is outwardly gleeful in his exclamations of “I’m busy too.” Dotted jig-like rhythms in the woodwinds show that nothing can get him down. His innocent love for Nancy is captured in equally uncomplicated terms—albeit with a dash of Englishman’s eroticism. But there’s clearly more to Albert than meets the eye and his Act 1 aria betrays previously unspoken emotions. The interlude after the scene in the marquee similarly portrays a split personality. Following the festivities, the village dance continues, but soon settles into a more existential musical passage. Albert is drunk, having had too much of Sid’s spiked lemonade (with a hint of Tristan und Isolde thrown in by Britten). He boasts and stumbles around the shop, accidentally ringing the bell hanging over the door. He calls out for his mother, even if his inebriated state mocks the propriety she craves. Her foursquare music lurks in the background, but Albert is “blowed if I’m ready for that.” The following scene may, on the surface, be a jokey dialogue between Albert’s good and bad conscience. But the music for “Why did she stare?”—his pondering of Nancy and Sid’s openhearted sincerity—is much more profound. Having seen a way out of the deadlock, Albert seizes his moment and escapes.


After the manhunt, parodying a similar but truly shocking moment in Peter Grimes, Albert returns to the village ready to answer questions. His mother and Lady Billows are shaken by his absence. Capitalising on their disbelief, Albert boasts of his brawls at the Horse and Groom and his night of “drunkenness, dirt and worse.” In an unexpectedly audacious moment, Albert castigates the village and his mother for their repressive force:


You know what drove me,
You know how I could.
It was all because
You squashed me down and reined me in,
Did up my instincts with safety pins,
Kept me wrapped in cotton wool,
Measure my life by a twelve-inch rule—
Protected me with such devotion
My only way out was a wild explosion!


The timpani that had underpinned Mrs. Herring’s questions now drives through Albert’s response. He answers her determination with his own unbending will. For Britten, whose mother had equally mollycoddled him throughout his childhood and early adult life, Crozier’s words must have triggered significant memories. Together, Albert and Britten crave freedom from stuffy domesticity. That nursery life has taken its toll and Albert finds his voice in a highly personalised outburst. For someone who had little individuality to begin with, this is a bold statement indeed.


Heard within the context of the opera as a whole, this moment has particular force. It follows one of the most touching threnodies in all of Britten’s output. The Book of Common Prayer tones of “In the midst of life is death,” the tolling bell and communal mourning prefigure the War Requiem, which followed some 15 years later. Coupled with Albert’s explosion, Britten indicates that, while the impetus for Albert Herring had been farce, the end result was much more serious. Musically, that shift is heard through Albert’s developing musical character. A mirror of the other people in the village, he eventually finds his own voice, as individualized and elegiac as that of Peter Grimes. And like that irrational and tragic figure, Albert speaks for a more liberal world of poetry, ambiguity and wider understanding.


So, although Britten clearly intended a warm and sincere homage to his home, Albert Herring equally points out the flaws in provincial life. It was a comedic exploration of the tensions that lie at the heart of Peter Grimes. Despite that message, many couldn’t see beyond the surface. John Christie, obliged to take the piece for Glyndebourne, was heard damning it in front of the audience on opening night. The critics were equally dismissive. It was “a charade” which offered “no more than a snigger.” Now, thankfully, we realise that Albert Herring is as heartfelt as anything within Britten’s incredible output.


© Gavin Plumley, 2012
Gavin Plumley is a London-based writer and musicologist. He contributes programme notes to opera houses across the globe, including a number on the works of Benjamin Britten. You can read more about his work via his blog www.entartetemusik.blogspot.com.

The Evolution of a Dark, Underestimated MasterpieceThe Evolution of a Dark, Underestimated Masterpiece

By Thomas May

The notorious travails of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway may represent an extreme case in our time, but there is a long, fascinating history to the artistic surgery otherwise known as rewriting a show. For Verdi in particular, mastery of this skill played a key role in the evolution of his mature style. While Mozart’s revisions tended for the most part to involve merely supplying new arias tailored to specific singers, Verdi spanned a considerable spectrum in his approach to rewrites. Some were quick touch-ups (La Traviata, following its initial flop) and others entailed reconceiving a work for an entirely new context (the 1865 rewrite of Macbeth for the Paris stage). But Simon Boccanegra inspired Verdi to undertake the most extensive overhaul of his entire career, almost a decade after he had officially “retired” from writing opera.

Verdi’s decision to remold the work is often seen as a cautious testing of the waters before he was ready once again, confidence restored, to plunge all the way into the works of his twilight years, Otello and Falstaff. There is no doubt that the profounder exploration of character ventured in the revised Boccanegra helped enrich the composer’s palette for those later miracles.

Yet in the rewritten form by which it has become best known (and which is the basis for most contemporary productions, including this one), Simon Boccanegra is not just an artistic stepping stone but a remarkable—if flawed—masterpiece in its own right. Verdi reclaimed a work that had already begun to sink into oblivion and transformed it into one of his most complex operatic visions. The challenges it poses for performers and audiences alike account for Boccanegra’s reputation as an opera for the Verdi connoisseur. While even drastic revision failed to solve all the underlying problems of dramatic structure and development, recent advocates have generated renewed interest in the work, along with wider admiration for the real magnitude of Verdi’s achievement here.

The original version of Simon Boccanegra was already a challenging work for audiences. After a lukewarm premiere at La Fenice in Venice in March 1857, the composer remarked that he had written a score “that does not make its effect immediately.” A number of revivals took place throughout Italy later in the decade, but the reception was disappointingly mixed (including outright fiascos in Florence and Milan).

Collaborating with his long-term librettist Francesco Maria Piave (and, to Piave’s chagrin, using revisions by the exiled revolutionary Giuseppe Montanelli), Verdi might well have thought he had just the right ingredients for success. After all, the story derived from a drama by Antonio García Gutiérrez, the Spanish playwright and emulator of Victor Hugo who had also been the source for Il Trovatore, a work that had furnished Verdi a resounding triumph from the moment it premiered in 1853. Simon Boccanegra in fact contains a number of noticeable musical echoes of Il Trovatore, such as the brief, mysterious ballad Paolo sings in the Prologue, divulging the doom-laden backstory of Simon’s love affair with Fiesco’s daughter, the interwoven offstage chants of the Miserere during Fiesco’s opening aria, or the troubadour-like romancing that introduces Gabriele in Act One.

Nowadays we tend to get tripped up by the strained coincidences of the plot. It’s easy enough to imagine an Anna Russell-esque spoof of its convolutions: “You see, that old sourpuss Fiesco plays fatherly protector to Amelia, but both of them are living under feigned identities and don’t know they are in fact related. Her real father is Simon Boccanegra, but he lost track of her as a baby while gallivanting about at sea, which is one of the reasons Fiesco hates him so passionately, not realizing Amelia actually is his long-lost granddaughter…. I’m not making this up!”

The device of lost-and-found identities which similarly (or, rather, even more outrageously) propels Il Trovatore’s tragedy obviously didn’t impede that opera’s popularity. But the relatively conservative musical framework in which it all plays out followed conventional expectations for Italian opera in the 1850s that Boccanegra challenged. While there is romantic entanglement, between Amelia and Gabriele, it’s eclipsed by the real love story: the one between father and daughter (and, secondarily, between Simon and the Genoese Republic). On a more abstract level, the predominance not just of male voices, but of male voices at the lower end of the register, might be seen as an emblem for the uniquely dark coloring that pervades its sound world. Verdi, a master of the tinta or sonic coloration that defines a particular dramatic essence, establishes a sense of lurking gloom that is quite distinct from Trovatore’s more romantically nocturnal atmosphere—not to mention the brooding pathos of Don Carlo and other Verdi operas.

Verdi, in his bones, was a practical man of the theater—at a far remove from Wagner’s endlessly spun theories. The kinds of innovation he was undertaking in these years (usually seen as starting in earnest with Rigoletto in 1851) were, as Verdi authority Julian Budden aptly writes, part of an ongoing process of “self-renewal” that would ultimately extend into the period of Boccanegra’s thoroughgoing rewrite. Instead of revolutionary, all-or-nothing challenges to convention, the composer maintained a more realistic approach characterized by Budden as “a mixture of conservatism and a tendency to cautious reform.”

At the same time, the material for Boccanegra seems to have drawn together several themes that Verdi found especially stimulating catalysts for his musico-dramatic imagination at its boldest. One is the intense emotional bond between father and daughter, an obsessively recurrent pattern throughout a number of Verdi’s operas which had autobiographical relevance. (The composer had lost his wife and two children to disease when he was only in his 20s.) Another is the way in which personal relationships become bound up in larger power struggles—yet another recurrent theme, as we find in the remarkable intersection of personal and political motivations that generate conflict in Aida and Don Carlo, for example.

Simon himself only reluctantly agrees to consider the call to become Doge (“leader”) when he is led to believe the position will facilitate gaining access to his beloved (before he learns of her death at the end of the Prologue). The opera’s title character is based loosely on the historical first Doge of the Republic of Genoa, who was elected in 1339 to serve in that position for life on behalf of the populist party, in opposition to the entrenched nobility. (Simon’s earlier popularity won through feats as a state-sponsored pirate are a fictional elaboration.) Verdi wasn’t interested in using history as a pageant-filled spectacle for its own sake (in the manner that became standardized as French grand opera) but in the universally relevant implications of his characters and their plights.

Yet the potential of Simon Boccanegra’s character as a visionary leader who is thwarted by the intractable jealousies and passions of human nature remained more or less dormant in the first version of the opera. There, Verdi had defied convention by resorting to declamation in place of arias for much of the musical characterization of his chief protagonist. But this untapped potential became the central focus for the composer’s revisions when he finally decided to tackle Simon Boccanegra again in 1880 for a revival at La Scala later that season. Along with his fine-tuning of many other aspects of the score, it was this fundamental recalibration that emphasized the Shakespearean complexity and ambivalence underlying the plot’s creaky melodrama.

In fact, Shakespearean ambitions helped prompt Boccanegra’s revision in the first place. Verdi hadn’t composed any new operas since Aida in 1871, but Giulio Ricordi, who had taken over as the energetic young head of the music publisher responsible for his catalogue, was determined to lure him back to the stage. He eventually succeeded in reawakening Verdi’s desire to set the drama of Shakespeare to music by strategically piquing his curiosity in a libretto to Shakespeare’s Othello that would be prepared by Arrigo Boito. A composer and man of letters who was a generation younger than Verdi, the half-Italian, half-Polish Boito had been associated with the avant-garde and had even earned the elder composer’s contempt in previous years. But the new project proved irresistible.

To help ensure a smooth collaboration, the idea of first revising Boccanegra—another preoccupation Ricordi had been urging on Verdi for over a decade, particularly since the public’s interest in that work had since vanished—seems to have at last taken hold. Verdi and Boito worked quickly, their efforts vindicated by a resounding success when the overhauled Boccanegra premiered in March 1881 (on the same stage that had treated the opera’s first incarnation so rudely in the 1850s).

It was in fact Verdi’s own idea to overwrite the finale to act one, in which the most extensive revisions were concentrated, with a grand new scene set in the Council Chamber of the Doge’s palace. Here, Simon’s plea for peace with Genoa’s enemies and between its own citizens—the enlightened vision of a new order, symbolized by explicit reference to the humanist poet Petrarch—are inevitably drowned out by the archaic, fateful strains of the curse Paolo is forced to pronounce on the villain who kidnapped Amelia (which, in a brilliant stroke of irony, not only is against himself, Simon’s former close ally, but seals his desire to ensure the Doge’s downfall). Menacing unison fanfares from the brass reinforce the impression of dark, inescapable forces that have an interior, psychological aspect throughout the opera—in the form of the unassuageable guilt that haunts Simon over the loss of his beloved. Verdi brings home the point through his chilling juxtaposition of the images of the tomb and the throne at the end of the Prologue.

All of these qualities make the title role an intimidating proving ground for the leading singer, both vocally and dramatically. Yet another significant revision was to intensify the role of Paolo as the Doge’s betrayer. His resentment here suggests the moral complexion that would be probed even further in the character of Iago in the new opera that was already incubating by this point. Paolo’s increased stature adds a powerful counterweight to the more conventional enmity represented by Fiesco, a character whose inflexibility toward Simon evoked what Verdi described as “a voice of steel.” In terms of the opera’s political conflict, Fiesco stands for the proudly aristocratic old order threatened by the winds of change. Yet it’s precisely this inflexibility that allows for the moving dramatic effect of his final reconciliation with the dying Doge. Fiesco retains his harshly pessimistic outlook even after making peace with his former enemy.

Verdi also refined many other points in the score with nips and tucks and subtle adjustments to harmony and orchestration. Over the nearly quarter-century that had elapsed since the first version of Simon Boccanegra—roughly the very same period that separates the Prologue from the rest of the action, as it happens—many of the conventions Verdi was tweaking in the 1850s had become moot. The stylistic overlay of his middle-period work with the more sophisticated continuity of later Verdi can be jarring for those who insist on consistency. Much of the music for the lead tenor Gabriele, for example, remains relatively unchanged and thus brings back the clearest echoes of the composer’s earlier style. At the same time, this juxtaposition creates a fascinating color of its own, not unlike the stratification of styles found in Wagner’s Siegfried, whose composition spanned more than a decade. Budden memorably likens these various facets of the revised Boccanegra score to “turning a stage-coach into a steam train.”

The thrilling climax created by the new first act, however, created a new set of dramaturgical challenges by reconfiguring the opera’s overall structure. A kind of lingering diminuendo seems to fall over the remaining two acts. The glimpses of promise and rebirth hinted in the first act—especially in the moving recognition scene between Simon and Amelia—are now overshadowed by a gradually thickening gloom. Musically, Verdi’s economy allows him to focus on ambience and internal states, making for an almost proto-modernist sense of drama beneath the linear progression of the plot. The undulating figurations he uses throughout the opera to suggest Genoa’s maritime character—at their brightest in Amelia’s first aria in act one—acquire a hallucinatory character as the poison takes effect and Simon seeks escape through memories of his beloved sea.

But it’s another fundamental musical gesture of this score—the fatalistic, funereal tread first heard in the Miserere in the Prologue—that returns for the unrelenting bleakness of the final moments. Despite the reconciliation that seems to be enacted as the dying Simon passes on the leadership to Gabriele, Verdi’s orchestra ends the opera with sighing phrases and the starkly tolling echoes of the past. The composer’s earlier verdict had been that Simon Boccanegra is “too sad, too depressing.” But the powerful, striking contrasts that animate the revised opera ultimately underscore its dark vision.

Thomas May is a frequent contributor to LA Opera programs.

A Letter from Plácido Domingo

Dear friends,

It is a new year and the beginning of a new era for LA Opera. In the first 25 years of our existence, we quickly established ourselves as one of the world’s leading opera companies. Naturally, there have been obstacles along the way, but nevertheless we have been able to thrive and grow. We are proud of the leading role we play in our community, and grateful to every one of you for your continued support over the years.

Like most arts organizations, we have seen challenges as a result of the global economy. While we are cautious in our planning and watching our budgets closely, I am proud that the artistic quality and musicality of our work has remained undiminished. Our past investments in backstage technology have turned out to help us in this regard, for we are now able to maintain a high artistic standard at a reduced cost.

You may have noticed the new graphic addition to our logo. The sunburst is based on design elements in our beloved Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, our home in the iconic Music Center of Los Angeles County. We selected this imagery because it embodies a creative energy and pioneering spirit unique to Los Angeles. This new look signifies the next phase in our exciting journey to best serve the people of this dynamic and vibrant city.

We recently conducted a major research campaign to learn how we could better serve our audience and have a bigger impact throughout our community. This has led to several new initiatives that we are proud to announce. First of all, we are implementing a new seating program that will enable us to invite more students, senior citizens and disadvantaged members of our community to experience the magic of opera. Tickets will be set aside for every performance, supplementing the extensive outreach opportunities that we already provide.

Second, we will be offering affordable ticket packages to enable parents, grandparents, and other relatives to introduce their young family members to opera’s thrilling combination of music and theater. More information on both of these programs will be available in a few weeks, when we announce the full details of our 2012/13 Season.

The final announcement I have today is perhaps of the most immediate interest. Next season, we will be lowering many of our prices and increasing the number of more affordable seats. We know that many people who want to attend our performances are facing tough choices about spending these days, and we want to make it easier for everyone to experience the work for

I can’t wait to share the incredible new season that we have put together, and I am equally excited about the new changes that we have made as we plan for the future. I look forward to sharing with you the unique experience of LA Opera as we move into an exciting new era!

Plácido Domingo
Eli and Edythe Broad General Director

Simon Boccanegra—A Note from the Conductor

By James Conlon

Simon Boccanegra is among Giuseppe Verdi’s most extraordinary creations. It is difficult for me to write on this subject divorced from my personal experience and feelings. I do so with conviction that reflects not just the practical experience of three productions and some 25 performances behind me, but also a lifetime’s passionate acquaintance.

Pure chance led to my first encounter with this opera at the age of 13. It was among the first operas of Verdi that I knew from beginning to end. Recently, on SiriusXM radio, I heard a broadcast of a 1964 performance I attended from my perch in the standing room area of the old Metropolitan Opera House. Verdi aficionados know and love it, but many here will be hearing and seeing it for the first time. Given my young age when I first learned the opera, I did not differentiate it from Rigoletto, Traviata or Aida, and it was years before I realized it was less well known.

I wondered why. It was not heard in the U.S. (at the Met) until January 28, 1932. (Lawrence Tibbett, Ezio Pinza, Giovanni Martinelli were in the cast with Tullio Serafin conducting). It had been premiered in Vienna just two years earlier in a translation by the eminent Franz Werfel. The so-called “political” operas of Verdi have often taken longer to be embraced by the greater public. The “love stories,” and those that are predominantly concerned with universal, human relations, were at an advantage. Tales of political struggle, lust for power and nations at war were slower to gain popularity.

But can one really divide up his operas in two categories? In fact, there is not a single opera by Verdi that is not essentially about human relations. Not one! Whatever the historical context, the era in which a plot was placed, the composer always put matters of the heart at the core. At the same time Verdi, more than any other 19th-century Italian composer, was fascinated by the dramatic potential inherent in tales of power struggles. The early historical operas, written in the heat of the political upheavals of the 1840s destined to free Italy from foreign influence, constitute a significant part of his youthful works. The so-called Risorgimento operas are works in which national aspirations form a central theme. Whether biblical (Nabucco) or historical (Giovanna d’Arco, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata and, most of all, La Battaglia di Legnano), they reverberated with the growing resentment of foreign domination. Increasingly sophisticated and subtle are Macbeth, I Vespri Siciliani, Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlo. It is significant that Verdi revised three of these works (two of these, Macbeth and Boccanegra, more than two decades after their first versions).

Simon Boccanegra is a shining case in point of both the historical/personal drama dichotomy as well as the dynamics of aria-based scenes versus “through-composed” scenes and acts. It is a hybrid opera, resulting from the enormous time lag betweens its two versions (1857 and 1881). A stylistic chasm separates the passages written only four years after La Traviata from those created directly before Otello. And yet, amazingly it holds together with enormous tensile strength.

In fact the results are seamless, while belying the colossal development that separates its elements. There is little stopping and starting. Only the tenor’s aria seems to beg for applause. By far the best-known aria from the opera is for the bass (Fiesco). Its postlude would seem to be drawn from Don Carlo, although it was written before it. In fact, one can appreciate Simon Boccanegra as a prelude to Don Carlo. It is a free adaptation of history based on real historical characters. Its color (tinta as Verdi called it) is dark and mysterious. It has a preponderance of low male voices (a baritone as protagonist, a bass-baritone and two basses versus a single tenor and soprano).

The opera offers a great deal to all. For the baritone, the demanding title role is at the apex in the pantheon of Verdi roles, rivaling Macbeth, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The role Fiesco has the stature of King Philip the Second. The soprano role (Amelia) looks forward to Desdemona. Paolo, the villain is, particularly in the 1881 version, a study for Iago. For a great stage director, the opera’s setting in medieval Genoa provides a historical context rich in possibilities. Descriptions of Giorgio Strehler’s 1971 production defy comparisons—and superlatives. I would not hesitate to identify it as the single greatest opera production I have ever seen.

For the conductor and orchestra, Boccanegra’s score is rich in layered textures, exquisite colors and dramatic intensity. It stands with Don Carlo, on the way to Otello and Falstaff. The sea is as omnipresent as in Wagner’s Tristan and Flying Dutchman or Britten’s Peter Grimes. It reflects the sea in the mysterious opening chords (which Liszt employed in his famous paraphrase for piano), the impressionistic panoramic introduction to Amelia’s introductory aria and in the poignant reflections of Simon in the last act. The eerily lugubrious prologue, the exquisitely moving Amelia/Simon scene (counterpart to the Violetta/Germont Act Two scene), Paolo’s concise Shakespearean “poison” soliloquy and the last act’s reconciliation duet between Fiesco and Simon are among the most moving of their genre.

But by far the crown jewel of the opera is the Council Chamber Scene. It stands as one of Verdi’s greatest accomplishments. One step before Otello, he demonstrates the heights to which he and Arrigo Boito (whom he engaged to test a hypothetical future collaboration) will soar in Otello and Falstaff. For grandeur, depth, concision and inspiration it is second to none. Simon is portrayed as a fearless and visionary leader of his people. His appeal for peace with the enemy city-state of Venice and the conflicting political factions of the Plebeians and Patricians are eloquent avowals of the tenets of Italy’s recent unification. Finally, his brilliant manipulation of the guilty Paolo, shaming him publicly by forcing him to curse himself in front of the entire populace, provides one of the most hair-raising curtains in Verdi’s entire output.

Simon Boccanegra, above all, is a man of peace, and the opera a tale of the power of reconciliation. Simon’s greatness as a leader resides in his valiant (if sometimes fruitless) efforts to promote harmony and understanding within the Italian peninsula—the republics of Venice and Genoa, the Patricians and the Plebeians, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The most moving scenes in the opera (Simon’s discovery of his long lost daughter, and his unexpected reunion with Fiesco after a quarter-century’s enmity) evoke profound feelings of joyous release from tragic separations and hostilities. In his dying moments, he blesses his daughter’s marriage to one who had been his lifelong enemy, and appoints him as his successor, in order to bring together the warring factions that had troubled his entire reign. He lives long enough (just barely) to fulfill the covenant with Fiesco to locate the missing Maria, and he dies having realized his two greatest desires: to find his daughter, and to deliver her to her mother’s father. His tragedy is to have died at the moment of his greatest happiness, enjoyed for only several hours at the end of a life lived in service to his people.

James Conlon, conductor of Simon Boccanegra, is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.

Introducing: Guest Blogger Katherine Giaquinto

Meet guest blogger/vlogger (and awesome soprano) soprano Katherine Giaquinto!


Katherine is singing the role of Gina in The Magic Dream, a wildly imaginative and engaging retelling of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute and the latest production from our Education and Community Programs department. She’s sharing her behind the scenes experiences from rehearsal to performance through her regular blog posts and we’re very excited about our collaboration!

Originally from Canada, Katherine began her performing career as a child actor in film and TV, and moved to Los Angeles to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A vocal injury prompted her to return to school for singing, where she discovered opera. She went on to complete her BA in Music at UCLA, and her Master of Music at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She now makes her home in Los Angeles, where she continues to passionately explore the intersection of classical music and drama through opera, recitals, concerts, film, and theater. Please visit www.katherinegiaquinto.com for more information.

LA Opera Makes Early Payment on Loan

Photo by Steve Cohn Photography

At a time when performing arts companies across the country are grappling with budgetary issues, it’s great to hear good news. Today, General Director Plácido Domingo, Board Chairman Marc I. Stern and CEO Stephen D. Rountree appeared before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to announce that LA Opera has made an early payment of $7 million against a $14 million loan the Company received in 2009. The Board of Supervisors also recognized Mr. Domingo for his long history of support and leadership for the arts in Los Angeles. For more information, read all about it at LATimes.com and on LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s blog.

Happy New Year!

Now that we’ve celebrated the arrival of the new year and the midpoint of our season, we’ve been busily working on many exciting things coming up in 2012 (and beyond!). We can’t wait to share them with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we thank you for your support, and wish every one of you a very happy 2012.