Possible representation of Simone (or Guglielmo) Boccanegra at the Palazzo San Giorgio (Genoa).
The real Simone Boccanegra was the very first doge of Genoa, and, unlike his brother Egidio, not a pirate at all. It was the Spanish poet Antonio Garcia Gutièrrez who had combined the two characters into one, adding an extra dimension to the story.
The story itself is indeed very complex, but no more difficult to retell than, say, Il Trovatore. Still, the premiere in 1857 was a fiasco, after which the opera disappeared for more than 20 years.
Set design by Girolamo Magnani for the revised Simon Boccanegra premiered at Milan’s La Scala in 1881: A Piazza in Genoa, Prologue. © Bertelsmann. com
In 1880, Verdi decided to completely revise the work, with the help of Arrigo Boito. A golden touch, which also marked the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between the two composers.
Front and back of Edel’s design for Amelia’s costume in Act 1. The illustrated design boards often provided detailed technical indications for the theater tailoring shop regarding cloth types and colors, shoes, headgear, and various accoutrements and decorations © Bertelsmann. com
Boito thoroughly reworked the libretto, created a new finale for the first act (the council scene), and further developed the character of the protagonist. To no avail: until the second half of the 20th century, the opera was only seldom performed and there are still those who consider the work unbalanced and boring. How unjustified!
Costume designs by Alfredo Edel, left: Simon Boccanegra, in the Prologue; middle: Simon Boccanegra, Act 1, Scene 2; right: Fiesco, Prologue © Bertelsmann.com
Personally, I find it one of Verdi’s most exciting and beautiful operas, with a very strong and human story, and the most beautiful bass aria ever (‘Il lacerate spirito’).
Giulio Neri sings Il Lacerato Spirito:
Admittedly, the opera is something of a hybrid with a mix of styles, because in addition to the typical “middle Verdian” music that occasionally strongly reminds one of that of Trovatore, Ballo in Maschera or Rigoletto, there is also a foreshadowing of Otello (second scene of the first act, for instance, when Amelia’s kidnapping is announced). Not a bad thing, because that is precisely what makes the work varied and surprising.
People say the opera is dark, and that’s true. It is also mournful, with mostly melancholic and sad music, and with only one bright spot: ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’, Amelia’s ode to the beauty of sky and sea. But even there the melancholy keeps resonating.
The fact that four of the five male leads are sung by singers with low voices is, of course, also very influential on the musical colours.
The first studio recording of Simone Boccanegra was made by EMI (now Warner Classics 2435674835) in 1957. Under the direction of Gabriele Santini a truly magnificent cast was assembled: Tito Gobbi as Simone, Boris Christoff as Fiesco and Victoria de los Angeles as Amelia. Very beautiful.
In 1973, RCA recorded the opera (RD 70729). Gianandrea Gavazenni conducts in a sluggish way and produces little or no excitement. A pity really, as the cast is excellent. It is one of the first recordings of Katia Ricciarelli, a singer with the lyricism of a nightingale. Her Amelia is so pure, so virginal – a teenage girl really still, eager to keep her little secret to herself a little longer. Nor is her love for Adorno really earthly, though in fact, Amelia is really almost thirty!
Katia Ricciarelli sings ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’:
Piero Cappuccilli is a splendid Simon and Ruggero Raimondi a fine Fiesco. As Adorno, Placido Domingo is a little too dominant and too determined, though his singing is obviously impeccable
In 1971, Claudio Abbado conducted a magisterial and now legendary performance of Boccanegra at La Scala. It was directed by Giorgio Strehler and the beautiful sets were designed by Ezio Frigerio.
In 1976, the production was filmed at the ROH in Covent Garden. Unfortunately, no official (there are ‘pirates’ in circulation) video of it was made, but the full cast did go into the studio, and the ultimate ‘Simone’ was recorded in 1977 (DG 4497522).
Abbado treats the score with such love and such reverence as if it were the greatest masterpiece of all time, and under his hands it truly transforms into a masterpiece without parallel. Such tension, and so many nuances! It is so, so beautiful, it will make you cry.
The cast too is the best ever. Piero Cappuccilli (Simon) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fiesco) are evenly matched. Both in their enmity and reconciliation, they are deeply human and always convincing, and in their final duet at the end of the opera, their voices melt together in an almost supernatural symbiosis:
Before that, they pass through all ranges of feelings and moods, from grievous to hurtful, and from loving to hating. Just hear Cappuccilli’s long-held ‘Maria’ at the end of the duet with his supposedly dead and found daughter (‘Figlia! A tal nome palpito’)
José van Dam is an exquisitely vile Paolo and Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras are an ideal love couple. The young Carreras had a voice that seems just about created for the role of Adorno: lyrical with a touch of temper, underlining Gabriele’s brashness. Freni is more than just a naive girl, in her love for Adorno she shows herself to be a real flesh-and-blood woman.
A fine performance of ‘Simone’ was recorded live in Vienna in 1961 (Gala GL 100,508). Gianandrea Gavazzeni is more exciting than on his RCA studio recording, but he cannot match Abbado.
Still, this recording is very worthwhile, not least because of Leyla Gencer’s Amelia. The Turkish soprano was the equal of Callas, only much less fortunate and she had to make do without having a recording contract. Tito Gobbi is an excellent Simone, and there is little to criticise about the rest of the cast either.
Leyla Gencer and Tito Gobbi in ‘Figlia! a tal nome palpito’:
A new (the previous one, with Domingo, Milnes and Tomova-Sintov was directed by Tito Capobianco and released by very hard-to-get Pioneer in 1984) Simone was recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (DG 0731319).
The staging is very naturalistic, eliciting bravos. The costumes and sets are also overwhelming and elaborate to the smallest details, beautiful to the eye, but not conducive to the drama unvolding. One loses oneself, as it were, in the details.
James Levine, meanwhile, has upped his tempi, and there is a decent pace. The direction is a bit static at first, but gradually it becomes more exciting. Robert Lloyd is a tormented Fiesco, but lacks the deep thirst for vengeance. Domingo is optically a bit too old for Adorno, too confident too, but he can sing like no other.
Kiri te Kanawa is a problematic Amelia: her face has only one expression and she has never heard of character portraiture, but her singing is certainly beautiful. Vladimir Chernov is very strong as Simone, whom he portrays as a kind of Jesus figure in the third act.
An excerpt from the production:
At the Maggio Musicale in Florence (June 2002), Claudio Abbado conducted a superb production by Peter Stein, which had previously been seen in Salzburg. Stein refrained from any updating of the opera, and so it is set in Genoa in the 14th century, including the blue sea and the doge’s council chamber.
The costumes too are in style, exquisitely beautiful and in brilliant colours. So the plebeians (in blue) can be distinguished from the patricians (red). The sets, on the other hand, are very sparse, giving extra attention to the few props – an example of clever manipulation.
Karita Mattila shines as Amelia. She polishes her high notes like gems: hear how her ‘pace’ towers above everything else in ‘Plebe! Patrizi’ in the second act.
Lucio Gallo puts down a vile Paolo and Carlo Guelfi moves us as Simon. Most bravos, however, are for the seriously ill and severely emaciated Abbado. What he manages to elicit from the orchestra, choir and soloists borders on the impossible (Arthaus Musik 107073)
Trailer of the production:
The star of this recording from Bologna (Arthaus Music 101 307) is Michele Mariotti. He comes up, looks around nervously, shakes the hands of a few orchestra members, puts a nervous smile on his face and bites his lips. And then he raises his baton and the spell begins.
I cannot remember the last time this opera was so beautifully conducted, so lovingly and with such élan, spirituality and bravura. Mariotti, born in 1979, graduated cum laude in Pesaro in 2004. His Boccanegra, recorded in Bologna in November 2007, was such a great success that he was immediately appointed as the principal conductor there.
The cast is mostly young. Giuseppe Gipali (Adorno) possesses a ringing tenor voice with an old-fashioned timbre, but unfortunately also with an old-fashioned way of (not) acting. This is much better handled by the beautiful Carmen Giannattasio (Amelia), who reminds me a little of Kiri te Kanawa in terms of tonal beauty.
Roberto Frontali is a convincing Boccanegra, Marco Vratogna a very vile Paolo and Alberto Rota shines in the small role of Pietro. The production is quite traditional, with fine period costumes.
Closing of the opera: