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.