Great moments in opera: Simon Boccanegra

August 10, 2013

My exploration of unfamiliar Verdi operas continues this anniversary year with a viewing of Simon Boccanegra, a middle period work that premiered just a few years after La Traviata. Verdi revised it twenty years later, toward the end of his life, and the revised version is the one normally heard today. It is a dark piece, written mainly for male voices (there is just one female character of any significance), and it is imbued with an imposing sense of tragic doom. Hard to love, perhaps, but impressive while it plays.

The action is set in fourteenth-century Genoa, and concerns the fate of the title character, who is the city’s Doge. The plot is complicated, with several characters appearing at different times under different names. I’ll do my best to sketch a skeleton plot to hang these highlights on.

It opens with a prologue in which several matters of importance occur. Simon Boccanegra has fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Fiesco yet is prevented from marrying her by her father Joseph. (The child, also named Maria, has subsequently gone missing while in the custody of her nurse.) Caught up in Genoese political turmoil and acclaimed Doge, Boccanegra accepts the position simply in order to secure the power to overrule Maria’s father’s objections to their marriage. On the night of his acclamation, however, Maria dies of an illness. The musical highlight of the prologue is her father’s lament, a bass aria called Il lacerato spirito (The tortured soul). Here is Robert Lloyd, with Spanish subtitles. (Apologies; the feeling comes through in any case.)

Twenty-five years elapse between the prologue and the opening of Act I, and these years are thick with thorns for anyone trying to follow the story. Boccanegra is still the Doge, but Fiesco, being his political opponent and fearing reprisals, has gone into hiding under the assumed name “Andrea Grimaldi”. We learn that the very night on which he fled Genoa, an infant girl was discovered on the grounds of his country retreat, and in the intervening decades he has raised her as his own daughter.

We, the audience, are not surprised to learn that this abandoned child, now grown to a young woman and called Amelia, is in fact Boccanegra’s lost child alluded to in the prologue, but none of the on-stage characters are aware of this initially. Ah, opera!

Amelia’s opening aria, Come in quest’ora bruna (How in this morning light), is a beauty worth lingering over. I suppose the same could be said of the singer: here is Marina Poplavskaya, from the Royal Opera House in London:

By a convenient coincidence, Simon Boccanegra visits the country villa where Amelia lives. In the course of their conversation, she reveals her orphan status and the circumstances which brought her to the care of Andrea Grimaldi. She shows Boccanegra a locket in which she keeps a picture of her mother. Boccanegra is astonished to see a picture of his long-lost love, Maria Fiesco: Amelia is his daughter! Contrived? Sure, but Verdi handles this recognition scene very nicely. Here are Kiri Te Kanawa and Vladimir Chernov, with English subtitles. The scene reaches its climax about 6 minutes in:

In Act II Boccanegra’s life is under threat from several angles: a courtier, Paolo, who was to marry Amelia until Boccanegra, discovering his paternity, forbade it without explanation, wants to assassinate Boccanegra. And another young man, Gabriele, also in love with Amelia, is fiercely jealous of Boccanegra’s newly close relationship with her, misinterpreting it as a romantic liaison. Gabriele, in fact, comes close to murdering Boccanegra, but is stopped at the last moment by Amelia, who explains the nature of their relationship. Together the three of them then sing a lovely trio, Perdon, Amelia… Indomito (Forgive me, Amelia… A wild, jealous love).

Meanwhile, Paolo has quietly poisoned Boccanegra’s drinking water. The final Act follows Boccanegra’s faltering final steps: he reconciles with his old rival Feisco, sees Amelia happily married to Gabriele, and names Gabriele his successor as Doge, but finally succombs. Here is the death scene; we pick it up about 6 minutes from the end:

Simon Boccanegra is not as popular as the majority of Verdi’s mature operas, and I think the principal reason is likely the complications of the plot: even with a synopsis in hand it is sometimes difficult to follow what is happening, much less to clearly understand the various motives of the principal characters as the story progresses. Mind you, an impenetrable plot hasn’t stopped Il Trovatore from being popular. It is also fair to say that the music of Boccanegra is not as winsome as might be hoped. I was, however, greatly taken with its moody, tragic ethos: watched with attention from start to finish it reveals itself as a work of considerable power, and Boccanegra himself is a character of impressive strength and dignity.

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