“Simon Boccanegra” was one of Verdi’s most sublime operas and a prized creation for the composer.
After suffering a brutal premiere back on March 12, 1857, the work was essentially left for dead, likely to never get a chance to firmly establish its place alongside many of Verdi’s other masterworks. But on March 24, 1881, the composer premiered another version of the opera, no page in the score left untouched.
Boccanegra is a fascinating opera because of its political bent, its powerfully rich relationships, but also for its use of a central image and idea to express the main character’s complex nature.
That, of course, is the sea itself.
The opening lines of the revised version, with the wave-like pattern in the strings, immediately brings forth this idea of waves moving about. It establishes the world of Genoa and its proximity to the sea. Verdi will return to similar musical associations with water and the sea throughout his powerful drama.
The sea and water in general often represent numerous things in literature. Baptism and rebirth are the symbols often associated, but at the same time, the element is the single most destructive there is. Water is virtually unstoppable and the storm at sea is viewed upon with fear and angst. Moreover, water with its shifting nature is unstable and always in motion.
The Shifty Waves of Politics & Politicians
Thus is the world of politics in “Simon Boccanegra” and the titular character’s role in it. The entire prologue sees him manipulated and maneuvered by Paolo to obtain his dream of power. Simon himself is not particularly set on a life in politics but is swayed by his own romantic dreams. As the opera unravels, Simon finds himself ever-changing in his political actions. He arrives in Act 2 as an authoritarian that has exiled rivals, forgives them and then, a scene later, launches into a powerful plea for peace in the midst of civil strife. At this point, drive by his own personal agenda he doles out aggression against a former political ally, who in turn plots Simon’s assassination. Civil war breaks out, Simon switching his allies, murdering his political rival Paolo and eventually conferring his crown, which he won through a democratic vote, to his son-in-law. It is all rather shifty and unstable, matching the stormy sea.
Other characters shift allegiances throughout the opera including Paolo, Adorno & Fiesco. Paolo pushes Simon into power before turning on him over personal motives. Adorno and Fiesco are his main opposition before personal reasons also turn them in his favor and eventually, in the case of Adorno, his successor.
Simon’s Fate Linked to Sea
But the sea motif has greater meaning because Simon himself is a pirate working for the Genovese government. His life has always been at sea, his natural element so to speak. Hence the shift we constantly see in his character, his depth endlessly rich and complex. It represents comfort for him, as witnessed by his monologue in the final act where he pleads out for it while suffering from a headache.
The sea or its surrounding areas are where the life-altering events in his life take place. It is by the seaside that his daughter goes missing. And it is by the sea-side that he eventually finds her. As she walks away from him, a harp plays what sound like waves as he utters the sublime “Figlia!” in a delicate tone.
But as noted, water is the most destructive of all elements and it is no surprise that it ultimately causes Simon’s death. With his world in imminent collapse due to civil struggle, the Doge sits for a drink of water to reflect on his role in the situation. Unbeknownst to him, his formerly loyal adviser Paolo has poisoned the water. In drinking to calm his angst, Simon drinks to his death.
Finally, water is often associated with reflection in a way none of the other natural elements are. “Simon Boccanegra” is one of Verdi’s most reflective operas, meditating on the individual’s role and responsibility when in power.
Want to read other similar essays and analysis on Verdi’s greatest operas?
Or check out how “Don Carlo” is an opera about abject failure.
Or maybe looking at the evolution of religion and its portrayal in Verdi is more your style?
Or how his style evolves from the seeds planted in “Ernani” and “Nabucco.”