The Met Streams Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

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Wednesday, August 5

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra ~ 2 HRS 20 MIN

Starring Kiri Te Kanawa, Plácido Domingo, Vladimir Chernov, and Robert Lloyd, conducted by James Levine. From January 26, 1995. 

This classic production by Giancarlo Del Monaco sumptuously captures the look and feel of 14th century Genoa and is a definite compliment to Verdi’s tragic story. The opera itself examines the treacherous path between public duty and private grief traveled by its hero, Boccanegra. Plácido Domingo plays Gabriele Adorno, who is the sworn enemy of Simon Boccanegra (Vladimir Chernov), the Doge of Genoa. Gabriele is in love with the beautiful Amelia (Kiri Te Kanawa) who turns out to be none other than the long-lost daughter the Doge himself. James Levine’s authoritative conducting of the Met orchestra and chorus highlights the dark power of yet another Verdi masterpiece.

Simon Boccanegra is one of opera’s most compelling and sympathetic characters – an introspective 14th-century Genoese Doge who ascended to power on the very day that the most ardent love of his life has died. The Doge is constantly beset on all sides, juggling political adversaries bent on his murder with intense loneliness, and then with his intense love for his long-lost daughter Amelia. In addition to Boccanegra’s internal conflicts, the story involves cloak-and-dagger intrigue, passionate young love, and noble sacrifice—and is set to an unfailingly dramatic score as only Verdi could have produced.

The opera – with a libretto by Verdi’s long time collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave – was first performed in 1857 in Venice, but had a decidedly lukewarm reception. Twenty-three years later, Verdi’s publisher, the great Giulio Ricordi, finally persuaded him to revise the opera, with text changes to be prepared by Arrigo Boito. Boito, a composer in his own right (Mefistofele), as well as an accomplished librettist, aspired to work with the aging Verdi, especially because of another project he cared passionately about, which did eventually become the new opera, Otello. The revised Boccanegra including a new, now-famous Council Chamber scene, premiered in Milan in 1881 to a warmer, if not completely enthusiastic reception. Without a doubt, part of the reason for Boccanegra’s limited popularity – even among Verdi enthusiasts – is that the plot of is bewilderingly convoluted. No amount of preparation — reading the libretto, studying plot summaries — is likely to unravel all of its absurdities. Its story entanglements rival a plate of Italian spaghetti. 

A bit of preparation beforehand will help, but you can always just relax and enjoy the music! Other Verdi plots often don’t make much sense, either (Il Trovatore?), but at least there is usually ample compensation in soaring arias from all of the principals. Not so much so in this one. This one is a muted, often restrained score, written first when Verdi was reasonably young, but heavily revised in 1881, when Verdi was 68 and thought himself already retired from the opera business. There are indeed some special arias, but far more of the work is through-composed music setting the tone and advancing the plot.

It is basically the tale of a 14th-century pirate, Simon Boccanegra, who with the support of the plebeian party rises to become Doge of Genoa and lay the seeds of Italian political unity. He was an actual historical figure. The 1881 version begins with a Prologue which takes place in front of the palace of Jacopo Fiesco, a wealthy aristocrat. Two plebeians, Paolo and Pietro, are discussing their choice in the upcoming election for Doge (ruler of the Republic of Genoa – which was one of many city-states in Italy at the time). Paolo is supporting Simon Boccanegra and when Simon arrives, suggests to him that if he becomes Doge, Jacopo Fiesco would surely allow him to wed his daughter, Maria – with whom Simon is deeply in love and has had a passionate affair that has produced a child. Fiesco, of course, was furious at this and has locked Maria away inside his palace.

Pietro rallies the crowd in support of Boccanegra and when they have dispersed, Fiesco bursts out of his palace stricken with grief over the sudden death of his daughter, Maria “Il lacerato spirito” (The tortured soul of a sad father), and vowing vengeance on Boccanegra. When Simon appears however, trying to offer reconciliation, Fiesco does not tell him of Maria’s death but says he would consider a reconciliation only if Boccanegra would give him the child (his granddaughter) to raise. Boccanegra then explains that that is now impossible since the child and her nurse have gone missing and cannot be found. Fiesco leaves in a rage and Boccanegra enters the palace, only to discover Maria’s body. As he staggers back outside, the crowd proclaims him Doge.

Twenty-five years pass between the Prologue and Act 1. In the interim, Boccanegra has cemented his power by exiling many of his political opponents and confiscating their property. The exiled Fiesco family has surreptitiously come back to the area and taken over the Grimaldi Palace. Jacopo Fiesco is now using the name Andrea Grimaldi. In the meantime, the family has adopted and raised an orphaned child of unknown parentage following the death of their own daughter and in the hope that she could become the family’s heir. As Act I begins, this child, Amelia, is now grown up and is waiting for her lover Gabriele Adorno in the seaside garden of the Grimaldi Palace. She remembers the humble hut in which she spent her early years, “Come in quest ‘ora bruna” (As in this dim hour / the sea and stars shine brightly…) and vows to not let herself be spoiled by the Grimaldi’s wealth. She is worried that Gabriele might be plotting against the Doge and warns him of the terrible danger in such a course. When word reaches the couple that the Doge, himself is about to arrive at the palace, Amelia urges Gabriele to ask her father immediately for her hand because she fears the Doge is coming to force her to marry his lieutenant, Paolo – “Sì, sì dell’ ara il giubilo / contrasti il fato avverso” (Yes, let the joy of marriage be set against unkind fate). Gabriele approaches Grimaldi (alias Fiesco) and is told that Amelia is not a true Grimaldi but was adopted by them as a child. He replies that her heritage does not matter to him and Grimaldi/Fiesco blesses the marriage. 

By the time Boccanegra arrives, the two men have left to plot against him. Finding Amelia, he tells her 

that he has pardoned her brothers. She is emboldened by his generosity and tells him that she loves Gabriele and does not want to marry Paolo. As she tells Boccanegra about her difficult past she shares her one prized possession from her mother – a locket with her picture. Boccanegra produces an identical locket and realizes that Amelia is actually his long lost daughter “Figlia! a tal nome io palpito” (Daughter, at that name my heart leaps). His immense joy is cut short, however, when Boccanegra then has to tell Paolo that he will not force Amelia to marry against her will. The furious Paolo leaves to arrange to have her kidnapped.

In his Council Chamber, the Doge is encouraging his councilors to make peace with Venice when angry shouts are heard from the street. He commands everyone to stay where they are and orders that the doors be opened. Gabriele rushes in ahead of the crowd confessing to killing the man who kidnapped Amelia. He says the man claimed he was put up to it by a man of very high rank. Gabriele thinks that that man must have been Boccanegra, but Boccanegra suspects it was Paolo. As Gabriele, along with Grimaldi, is about to attack the Doge, Amelia rushes in and prevents it, “Nell’ ora soave” (At that sweet hour which invites ecstasy / I was walking alone by the sea,) describing her kidnapping and escape. Boccanegra puts Gabriele and Grimaldi in prison for the evening to cool off and again urges peace as the crowd becomes unruly, “Plebe! Patrizi!” (Plebeians, patricians!) asking them to behave as brothers. He commands them all to curse the man behind the kidnapping, forcing Paolo to curse himself or be discovered.

Act II takes us through Paolo’s further treacheries to the opera’s tragic conclusion: first, his insinuations to Gabriele that Boccanegra is having an illicit relationship with Amelia and Gabriele’s famous aria, “Sento avvampar nell ‘anima” (My soul is on fire!); which is followed by his attempts to try to convince both Gabriele and Grimaldi/Fiesco to murder the Doge. When Amelia once again intervenes in Gabriele’s attempt on Boccanegra’s life, Gabriele is finally told that Amelia is the Doge’s daughter, not his lover. Boccanegra, however, has already drunk a glass of water poisoned by Paolo. 

In the final Act, on his way to be executed for treason, Paolo meets Grimaldi/Fiasco and proudly tells him that he has successfully poisoned the Doge. Shocked, Grimaldi runs to confront the obviously now dying Doge who finally recognizes him as Fiesco and tells him Amelia is his granddaughter. In their emotional duet as Boccanegra is dying in Fiesco’s arms “piango perche mi parla” (I cry because he is speaking to me) the two men reconcile and bless the marriage of Amelia and Gabriele, while Simon appoints Gabriele as the new Doge, “Gran Dio, li benedici” (Great God, bless them….).

Picture Credits

1. The Prologue of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

2. Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

3. Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia and Vladimir Chernov in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

4. Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia, Placido Domingo as Gabriele and Vladimir Chernov in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

5. The council chamber with Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia, Placido Domingo as Gabriele and Vladimir Chernov in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

6. Boccanegra dies in the presence of Amelia, Gabriele and Fiesco (Te Kanawa, Domingo, and Robert Lloyd as Fiesco) in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, 1995. Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Opera archives.

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