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.