Among the operas of his prime, Simon Boccanegra was Verdi’s problem child. The premiere in Venice in 1857 was a fiasco and even the radically revised version produced with the help of Arrigo Boito, later the librettist of Otello and Falstaff, which was first performed in Milan in 1881, was unable to gain any broad acceptance. Today the opera is performed more frequently, regarded among connoisseurs as an insider’s tip. It is perhaps Verdi’s most personal work, certainly his darkest, most pessimistic. In a letter to Opprandino Arrivabene dated 2 February 1881 he writes, ‘The subject… is sad because it has to be sad, but it’s gripping.’
Anyone who engages with the complicated plot with its fateful concatenation of circumstances and obsessive recurrences encounters a fatalistic historical drama of disturbing topicality: men make history and women are the victims. The historical events taking place in the context of the civil warlike conflicts in Genoa during the middle of the 14th century are, however, only the background for a drama about love, guilt and atonement. Private and public life are interwoven; neither exists independently of the other. Paolo, the leader of the people’s party, is seeking to break the power of the nobility by getting the popular corsair Simon Boccanegra elected as doge. At first Simone declines to stand. But Paolo knows his vulnerable spot: Maria, his lover and mother of his daughter. In order to attain private happiness Boccanegra lets himself be blackmailed, only to lose precisely this happiness in the end. Kept prisoner by her father Jacopo Fiesco, Maria dies, while their daughter vanishes without a trace. All Simone has left is his office as doge, whose power he henceforth exercises in the service of reconciling the two hostile parties. 25 years pass before he by chance finds in Amelia Grimaldi the daughter he thought he had lost. But fate repeats itself: Amelia loves Gabriele Adorno, a nobleman allied with Boccanegra’s arch-enemy Fiesco. Paolo, who himself has designs on Amelia, exacts vengeance and poisons Simone.
The dramatic composition and music of Simon Boccanegra are marked to a significant degree by the great difference in time and thus the stylistic development between the first and the second version, up to a third of which was newly composed. The stylistic gap can be heard quite clearly. While the numbers retained from the first version, particularly from the Prologue and the second act, largely follow the traditional forms of Italian opera, the parts composed later already show Verdi on his way to the late style of Otello. That is true above all of the great Council Chamber scene invented by Boito in Act One, rightly regarded as the climax of the opera. It is only here, before the assembled senators and the common people who burst into the chamber that Simone, with his powerful, imploring appeal for peace and cursing of the scheming Paolo, stands out as a man of political action, while he otherwise appears as a lover and father who is torn apart by the emotions of painful memory and resignation. Paolo, turned traitor out of scorned love, who in the original version is a pale cipher, here takes on demonic features that already foreshadow the figure of Iago in Otello. Fiesco’s implacability shows clearly in his two duets with Simone that bookend the opera, while Gabriele Adorno is musically somewhat neglected by Verdi, despite being given a remarkable aria expressing his jealous rage. Amelia, the suffering, passive angel as the embodiment of the hope of ‘pace e amor’, peace and love, invoked by Simone, stands as a figure alone.
Unlike the preceding trio of popular successes Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, Simon Boccanegra is not distinguished by catchy melodies but derives its impact from the profound depiction of the inner life of the protagonists, the psychological underpinning of its orchestral language and a musical ground colour that is almost universally marked by pain, melancholy and loss. At the end of the drama Fiesco summarizes this feeling of loss in words that despite the marriage of Amelia and Adorno only tentatively give rise to hope: ‘All mortal happiness is a deluding enchantment.’