℗ © 2013 Decca Music Group Limited
From the included liner notes by Jon Tolansky
It has never been clear how Verdi came to choose Antonio García Gutiérrez’s play Simón Bocanegra
(1843) when La Fenice Opera in Venice commissioned him to compose a new opera for the 1856–57 season. It may well have been the woman he was to marry three years later, Giuseppina Strepponi, who introduced him to it, as she had with the same author’s El trovador
, which had been the source for Il trovatore
four years earlier — her conversance with Spanish and a number of other languages was one of many supports he greatly valued in her. She would also have been well aware of the powerful appeal the play’s issues — social, political and family conflicts and the aspirations of one man, Bocanegra, to resolve them — would have for Verdi. Bocanegra faces tragedy, becomes a statesman, and, after a quarter of a century, achieves reconciliations with his long-lost daughter and then his oldest personal and political adversary, before he dies a victim of poisoning by one of his own side. The development of his character as he confronts his own and others’ profound dilemmas was an inspiration to the composer’s innermost soul, as Decca’s Simone Boccanegra, Thomas Hampson, comments:
At the start we have this typical fateful situation in a Verdi opera: the ripping apart of a man’s private life against the backdrop of his public life. In the Prologue Boccanegra is completely apolitical and has no interest in becoming the people’s Doge until he realises it can enable him to marry his beloved Maria, whom her father, the patrician Fiesco, has banned him from seeing. When he finds her dead just as he is successfully proclaimed Doge, we have a man who has an unimaginable depth of personal tragedy at the very moment that he is being made a very powerful political figure. At one fell swoop his life is in total contradiction. The way that he emerges from this as a challenge to peoples’ perceptions in politics and a figure of strength, forgiveness and love is the meat and bones of the opera, and it epitomises Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with the trials of human dilemma.
And, as Joseph Calleja, Decca’s Gabriele Adorno in the opera explains, the example of Boccanegra’s forgiveness and love catalyses the most unlikely reversal of political fortunes — a situation that was deeply close to Verdi’s heart.
The political ramifications of Boccanegra are pretty complex. In fact I always struggled with the fact that Adorno swears allegiance to the Doge the minute he learns he is Amelia’s father rather than her lover. After all, Adorno is pretty visceral in his angry reaction towards Amelia when she stops him from murdering the Doge. With perhaps one of the most beautiful apologies written in operatic history — “Perdon, Amelia” in Act Two — it would seem that Adorno as well lets love conquer his revenge-fuelled rage.
Act Two was the part that was least altered by Verdi when he came to make considerable revisions to his original score. In 1857 the work had not been successfully received, and mixed blame was laid on the composer’s experimental music and the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave and Giuseppe Montanelli. Partly because of his preoccupation with a lawsuit over performances of La traviata
in Paris, Verdi had not been able to give the libretto the meticulous attention he usually insisted on. Additionally, he had responded to the scale of the subject and the nature of the characters with an unconventional score in which the title role was principally dialogue and declamation, there were fewer opportunities in the other roles for the kind of open-hearted arias that the public liked, and the orchestra took on a larger than usual importance in what was a predominantly dark- and often even grey-sounding tinta
. Verdi recognised the public’s problems, and by the mid-1860s Giulio Ricordi, of the Ricordi publishing company, was suggesting to him without fear that he make a revised version. The composer, though, was not yet ready for this. Never a person to yield to pressure, he set Simon Boccanegra
aside until a much later time, when he was finally able to realise how the opera could be quite substantially rewritten in a way that would strengthen its power and, he hoped, its appeal.
By 1881, Verdi’s operatic style had manifestly developed along more elaborate and symphonic lines, and his vocal writing was accompanied by more adventurous and sophisticated harmony and orchestration. He had also been pleased by a new collaboration with the poet, novelist and composer Arrigo Boito, his reformed opponent of earlier years, who had come to admire and, most importantly, understand his works, particularly the more recent operas. In 1879 Ricordi had persuaded Verdi to have exploratory discussions with Boito about a possible opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello
, and Boito formed a healthily intelligent relationship with the demanding and intractable composer, accepting without rancour Verdi’s inability to commit decisively to the draft libretto he had written, or indeed to the project at all at this stage. Verdi’s confidence in Boito, with whom he was in due course to proceed with Otello
, together with his consciousness of the suitability of his own more advanced musical style for Gutiérrez’s play, meant that the time had now come for a revision of Simon Boccanegra
that would retain some of the novelties of the original but encase them in a new elaborate tapestry. Boito had reservations at first, but when Verdi revealed his new design to him, he was won over.
In particular, Verdi envisaged rewrites more of the dramatic scenes than of the lyrical episodes, also a wholly new orchestral prelude for the Prologue that then becomes woven into that scene’s development, and, most vitally, the creation of an entirely new scene (the Council Chamber Scene in Act One) in which Boccanegra unifies the combating factions of plebeians and patricians. For this scene, Boito responded with additional revelations in the form of a debate and ensuing rebellion, verse for a fully-fledged “unification” aria from Boccanegra that moves into an impassioned ensemble (“Plebe! Patrizi!”), and an extended passage of free dialogue as Boccanegra exposes his courtier Paolo’s complicity (“Paolo — Mio duce!”). This inspired Verdi to write some of the most original, striking and subtle music in his entire œuvre. Add to that the deeply poignant reunion of Boccanegra and his daughter, given considerably more expressive subtlety than in 1857 by rich new harmonies in a short new passage that was Verdi’s, not Boito’s idea, plus the greater psychological power afforded by the symphonic continuity of the writing, and the trials and tribulations both for Verdi and Simone Boccanegra himself were resolved with triumphant and profoundly moving eloquence.