Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra was first performed in 1857. It achieved a very modest success. Verdi thought about revising it for many years. With Arrigo Boito as his librettist, he finished a major overhaul of the work in 1881. Boito’s work on the revised libretto was a test drive for his suitability as Verdi’s collaborator on his last two operas, the Shakespeare derived Otello and Falstaff. Obviously, Boito passed the test with honors.
Revising Boccanegra was a very hard test as despite first rate music it has a plot that defies rational analysis. In the opera, Boccanegra is a corsair who is drafted into becoming Doge. In reality, he was an aristocrat who became Genoa’s first Doge – Simone Boccanegra (1301-63).
The most important addition in the revised version is the addition of the Council Chamber Scene. Verdi got the idea from two letters by Petrarch urging Genoa and Venice to cease fighting each other as they were sons of the same mother – Italy. In the scene, Boccanegra the Doge of Genoa, urges the patricians and plebians to cease hostilities after first urging peace with Venice. A description of the scene is below.
The Doge encourages his councilors to make peace with Venice. He is interrupted by the sounds of a mob calling for blood. Paolo (Simon’s councilor who was denied Amelia’s hand by the Doge) suspects that his kidnapping plot (Amelia was the target) has failed. Amelia is Boccanegra’s long lost daughter whose existence he has just discovered. The Doge prevents anyone from leaving the council chamber and orders the doors to be thrown open. A crowd bursts in, chasing Adorno (Amelia’s inamorata). Adorno confesses to killing Lorenzino, a plebeian, who had kidnapped Amelia, claiming to have done so at the order of a high-ranking official. Adorno incorrectly guesses the official is Boccanegra and is about to attack him when Amelia rushes in and stops him (Aria: Nell’ora soave – “At that sweet hour which invites ecstasy / I was walking alone by the sea”). She describes her abduction and escape. Before she is able to identify her kidnapper, fighting breaks out once more. Boccanegra establishes order and has Adorno arrested for the night (Aria: Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo! – “Plebeians! Patricians! Inheritors / Of a fierce history”). He orders the crowd to make peace and they praise his mercy. Realizing that Paolo is responsible for the kidnapping, Boccanegra places him in charge of finding the culprit. He then makes everyone, including Paolo, utter a curse on the kidnapper. Paolo is horrified at cursing himself. His reaction is much the same as Rigoletto’s response to being cursed by Monterone.
The scene is constructed so that one great moment is immediately followed by another. Its centerpiece is Simon’s great declamation, ‘Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!’ Budden in his analysis of the opera calls it “Verdi’s finest monument to the baritone voice – a hymn to the ideal of universal brotherhood as uplifting as Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.” This is really saying something given Verdi’s unique writing for that vocal range. The scene which began as an exciting political intrigue ends as a confrontation between good and evil. It is a high point of Verdi’s long career. He never wrote anything better
The recording of the scene below was made in 2015. It features the late and great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostosky in the title role. This was the same year that the brain cancer which killed him in 2017 was diagnosed. I heard Hvorostovsky as the Doge in San Francisco in 2008. He was excellent, though I felt a little more vocal power would have helped. Barbara Fritoli was Amelia in that performance as she is in the recording. The baritone’s sound on the recording is a little huskier than was usual for him. For all its thematic inconsistencies, Boccanegra is a masterpiece worth visiting the theater when a first rate cast and conductor have charge of it.