Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (1857 version)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes.

Okay, so Sir Denis Forman did review the revised 1881 version of this opera but I feel that there is enough of a difference between the two versions of this opera for the original to be considered in part a different opera (one third of the score is completely different). Also I could not resist!

PLOT: Genoa, 14th century. Simon seduced and impregnated Maria the daughter of Fiesco. When mother Maria dies and baby Maria goes missing Fiesco tells Simon that there can be no peace between them until she is returned. Years later an apparent Grimaldi princess is to be married off to Paolo but when Simon discovers her true identity the deal is off and Paolo tries to have her kidnapped, and later poisons Simon when this and an uprising fail. Meanwhile Maria is in love with Gabriele Adorno who is the enemy of her father.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A piazza in Genoa before the home of Fiesco. (26 minutes)

0: The two minute prelude is an awkward little thing. Starting off with a series of melodic marching bangs it just as quickly gives way to some tuneful woodwinds and then something anyone who has heard the revision will recognize as being a war theme, it climaxes leaving the strings and woodwinds whirling about as the curtain goes up. It isn’t the striking seafaring opening of the revision but it gets a star * so you note this difference. This is followed by a five minute patch of rather dull recitative as Paolo and Pietro come on and discuss how they will vote. Paolo is a groupie of Boccanegra, a pirate turned half-respectable who has had an illegitimate daughter by an aristocratic young woman whose father Fiesco has locked her away in his palace. Simon comes on and Paolo tells him that if elected Fiesco will surely give his daughter to him in marriage.

10: There is then some Mickey-mousing from the orchestra as Paolo tells the assembled men of suffrage age about Simon’s affair and daughter. Paolo’s two minute long song of political awareness works well on the voters. Which brings us to Fiesco’s farewell and prayer to his dead daughter ** (complete with female and male choral participation).

15: The Simon-Fiesco duet * demonstrates that there is a distinct tonal difference between basses and baritones, and baritones can sound almost as youthful as tenors when required. Simon goes into a backstory about how baby Maria has disappeared and can not be returned to her grandfather, thus there can be no peace between the two men.

22: The bizarre finale is low key but striking *. Simon is confronted with potential victory by Paolo, then goes into Fiesco’s palace to find that Maria (his lover not his daughter) is dead as the citizenry acclaim him as Doge to a tuneful if fast chorus.

ACT 2 (49 minutes)

Scene 1: Garden of the Grimaldi palace.

2: Instead of the rather lovely seafaring prelude of the revived first act we get the sloppy copy first rough draft along with daughter Maria’s aria *. She and almost everyone else thinks she is Amalia, a Grimaldi princess. In comparison to the revision this is incredibly weak, limped, and somewhat inane. She then goes into a somewhat awkward passage of recitativo before Gabriele is heard serenading her to an accordion? She explodes with an excited if dim cabaletta with coloratura madness plodding away like crazy.

15: What follows consists of fragments that remind one of the revision (good) and long patches of bizarrely crippled recitative (sad), as they talk politics before the arrival of her servant who announces Paolo (prospective marriage proposal) who announces that Simon is coming to encourage his suit. They duet rather nicely towards the end to a melody that will be better developed in the revision *. She leaves and Gabriele has a four minute interview with Fiesco (disguised as Andrea) who explains that Amalia is not who everyone thinks she is (really a foundling brought up by the Grimaldi to protect their property from Boccanegra after the death of the real Amalia), although even he is oblivious to the fact that she is, in reality, his long-lost granddaughter Maria. They have a fine finish leading to the first of two dialogues between Simon and Paolo on the subject of the latter’s possible marriage to Amalia.

22: The father-daughter recognition duet *** is long (9 minutes) but good and followed by Simon telling Paolo that any plan on marrying Amalia is off now, so he decides to kidnap her in a duettino with Pietro.

Scene 2: A square in Genoa, a festival in progress.

34: This scene is the only one that is basically different from the revision and starts with four choral numbers * one after another: an okay bouncy male chorus followed by quiet women, and then a stately male “Viva Simon” chorus (to the first melody from the prelude) and finally a mildly furious Ballabile of African Corsairs.

40: Gabriele arrives accusing Simon of kidnapping Amalia, who also as quickly arrives, unharmed if shaken. What follows is a nice quartet **.

47: Amalia describes her experience and everything is somewhat ornery until a harp breaks in and the last two minutes of the act provide a bit of pleasure for once as everyone calls for justice **.

ACT 3: A room in the Doge’s palace. (26 minutes)

4: Paolo is angry about having to give up on Amalia and poisons Simon’s drinking water. After encounters with Pietro, Fiesco and Gabriele we get a rather striking aria from the last ** which sounds so modern and out of character with its surroundings. Gabriele thinks Amalia/Maria is two-timing him with Simon, but he soon turns to prayer.

9: The Amalia-Gabriele two-timing duet **.

20: Amalia tells Simon that she is in love with Gabriele and wants to marry him, which infuriates him. Gabriele sneaks up behind Simon as he doses off only to be stopped and alerted by Amalia/Maria. Simon admits to being her father which freaks out Gabriele but does clear up rather a lot. A lovely trio ensues ***, including some high strings and Simon thinking about mother Maria as he drinks the poisoned water. The act concludes with the three commenting over a background of the warrior theme which was the third tune from the prelude to act one.

ACT 4: A room in the Doge’s palace. (24 minutes)

0: The act starts immediately with a male choral number * to a more through-composed form of the first theme from the prelude to act one, followed by a brief bit for Paolo and then a return of the chorus, more recitative and then an outside female chorus. Paolo in passing tells Fiesco about the poison.

7: Simon remembers his youth * in a nice arioso which gets punched in the face by Fiesco. Simon reveals to Fiesco that Amalia is really Maria his long-lost granddaughter so the two men can be reconciled. Fiesco tells Simon about the poison as he can tell the poor man is already dying.

11: The touching Simon-Fiesco duet **.

17: The through-composed form of theme one comes in as a wedding march rather grandly as Maria and Gabriele (newly-weded) arrive leading to the final scene as Simon & Co. say goodbye ***. Maria does get some odd coloratura whirls which are a bit strange but otherwise it is a solid number. Simon declares Gabriele as his successor, calls for Maria one last time and dies. Fiesco prays for peace on his soul and a funeral nell tolls as the opera fades away. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

Most of the differences between the two versions consist of changes to the openings of each of the five scenes affecting anywhere from four to eight minutes with one exception. These include a new opening scene (which nevertheless has the same libretto and is basically the same length of seven minutes), the council scene,  an expansion of Paolo’s scene in act 2, and the change from a choral sequence to a more generic victory scene at the start of act 3. The biggest changes were made to the two scenes of the original act two (act one in the revision) involving a total rehabilitation to the prelude, Maria’s aria, and her duet with Gabriele which in the original consisted of a bizarre combination of good and rather sad material, impacting 15 solid minutes of music. The second scene of the act is not without charm but the new Council Scene was a massive improvement, however the last two minutes of the act are rather good although the dramatic power of the revised “curse” finale is undeniably grander and more effective. There is much ornery recitative (particularly in the first twenty-minutes of act 2) and the blatant number endings come off so strangely to anyone who knows the 1881 version (where Verdi clipped them in accordance with modern tastes). The revision is obviously better than this, but it should be noted that most of the best numbers in the revision are lifted intact from the original, especially in the last two acts which are almost identical. The weakest parts of the original are all transfigured in the revision and the only rather good bit in the original version that is missing from the revision is the approximately 90-second sequence that ends the fairground scene but in comparison to what we gain it is of little consequence.  It must be a B.

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