“Simon Boccanegra” is one of Verdi’s most divisive operas.
Many consider it among his greatest works, while others find it a major bore.
The opera had its world premiere on March 12, 1857, in a version that was received very poorly. The original reaction was so negative that the opera was quickly forgotten.
But Verdi endured and before working with Arrigo Boito on “Otello” and “Falstaff,” he engaged the librettist to help him improve “Simon Boccanegra.” Boito made changes to the libretto and Verdi wound up overhauling the entire score, leaving almost no page unchanged. It is this latter version, which had its world premiere on March 24, 1881, which endures to this day and has been championed and recorded ever since.
Short Plot Summary
In a prologue, the goldsmith Paolo discusses with his friend Pietro the upcoming election for Doge of Genoa and his support for his friend, Simon Boccanegra. He tells Boccanegra that if the latter becomes Doge, he may be able to win the blessing of Maria’s father, Jacopo Fiesco. Although Boccanegra and Maria love one another, Fiesco locked her away in the palace when she gave birth to their child outside of wedlock.
After Paolo and Pietro manage to gather a number of people to support Boccangera in the election, Fiesco emerges from his palace to announce that Maria has died, and that he holds Boccanegra responsible. Though still furious, Fiesco states that he will forgive Boccanegra if he will allow him to raise his granddaughter. Boccanegra reveals that his child was stolen by a nurse, making this impossible. A crowd of citizens burst into the palace, declaring Boccanegra as the new Doge.
Twenty-five years pass, and during that time the Doge has sent many of his enemies into exile, among them Jacopo Fiesco, who has since assumed the identity of Andrea Grimaldi while living in the Grimaldi palace, where he conspires to overthrow Boccanegra.
Amelia Grimaldi awaits her lover, Gabriele Adorno, who she suspects of conspiring against the Doge. When the Doge himself visits, Amelia believes that he has come to marry her to Paolo, who has since been promoted to Boccanegra’s council. Before this can happen, she urges Adorno to receive the blessing of her guardian Andrea; during their talk Andrea reveals to Adorno that Amelia is not truly his daughter, but an adopted child who was found in a convent. When Adorno asserts his love, Andrea grants his blessing to their marriage.
The Doge announces that he has pardoned Amelia’s brothers for their actions against him, but when Amelia tells the Doge of her adoption, they compare lockets which contain the same picture of Maria, thus realizing they are father and daughter.
All are happy with the course of events, with the exception of Paolo; when Boccanegra tells him that he will not marry Amelia, he conspires to kidnap her instead. When the Doge is discussing making peace with Venice with his councilors, an angry mob soon arrives chasing Adorno, who confesses to killing Lorenzo, a commoner who had himself kidnapped Amelia. Adorno believes the Doge is the official whom Lorenzo claimed hired him, but before he can attack Boccanegra, Amelia dissuades him by recounting what happened. Although chaos is about to break out once more, Boccanegra maintains order and has Adorno stay in prison for the night.
The Doge appoints Paolo to lead the investigation of Amelia’s kidnapping; fully aware that Paolo was the one pulling the strings, Boccanegra has Paolo and everyone gathered curse the man behind the plot.
In the castle, Paolo tries to get Fiesco and Adorno to murder Boccanegra, eventually persuading the latter to do the deed out of jealousy. Paolo, however, has a fail-safe – he poisons a glass of water intended for Boccanegra.
The Doge arrives and has a drink and feels ill. As he rests, Adorno enters prepared to murder him. However, Amelia saves her father and the three have a confrontation. Adorno realizes that Boccanegra is Amelia’s father and pledges himself to the Doge.
After a victory, Boccanegra, feeling ill, enters his chambers and is confronted by Fiesco. Boccanegra reveals the identity of his daughter to his father-in-law and the two make peace. Paolo is led off to die as a traitor, but Boccanegra dies. Adorno becomes the next Doge.
Famous Musical Numbers
The opera has a number of renowned arias throughout, including Fiesco’s “Il lacerato spirito” and Adorno’s “Sento avampar nell’anima.” There is also Amelia’s evocative “Come in quest-ora bruna” as well as the famed concertato “Plebe! Patrizi!”
Read More on “Simon Boccanegra”
Watch and Listen
Here is a famed recording conducted by Claudio Abbado.
And here is a performance with Montserrat Caballé, Pietro Cappuccilli, and Paul Plishka.