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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts (1857 ‘Original’ version)
Simon Boccanegra, Corsair and Doge of Genoa, Sesto Bruscantini (bar); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi, Josella Ligi (sop); Jacapo Fiesco, Gwynne Howell (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, André Turp (ten); Paola Albiani, William Elvin (bar); Pietro, Paul Hudson (bass)
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Matheson
Rec. Golders Green Hippodrome, London, before an invited audience
First broadcast by the BBC on 1st January 1976
Full Price
OPERA RARA ORCV 302 [2CDs: 71.39+49.29]


This is the second of Opera Rara’s issues of the original versions of Verdi operas. These originated as BBC broadcasts in the 1970s and were produced under the aegis of their then opera guru, Julian Budden, a Verdian of repute and scholarship. Although recorded in front of a live audience the listener will only be aware of their presence by applause after the end of the Prologue and each Act. The recording is more resonant than that on the first of the series, Macbeth, (reviewed by me elsewhere on this site) and there is some ‘echo’ around the voices.

In my review of Macbeth, I gave background and reasons for the various revisions Verdi made to a number of his original works. With some he went as far as renaming the opera. I further suggested that there was a Paris connection with many of these re-workings. In the case of Simon Boccanegra, the only Paris connection was not musical but Verdi’s presence in that city, first for the production of ‘Les Vêpres siciliennes’, and later for a lawsuit. He accepted a commission from the ‘Teatro la Fenice’ in Venice for the 1856-57 season, and decided on the subject of the opera, based like ‘Il Trovatore’ on a play by Guttiérrez. It was ideal for Verdi, involving a parent-child relationship and revolutionary politics in which the composer had always involved himself in occupied Italy. Given the political background, albeit that the action was set in 14th century Genoa, the censors gave Verdi and his main librettist, Piave, considerable grief. The composer held out and the opera was premiered on 12th March 1857. It was, in Verdi’s own words, ‘a greater fiasco than La Traviata’, whose failure could be attributed to casting and was quickly reversed. The critics of the time wrote about the gloomy subject matter and the lack of easily remembered arias and melodies. A production at Naples went better but that at La Scala, in 1859, had a worse reception than the one in Venice. The composer had moved his musical idiom much too far for his audiences and he wrote ‘The music of Boccanegra is of a kind that does not make its effect immediately … It is very elaborate, written with the most exquisite craftsmanship and needs to be studied in all it details’ (Budden. ‘The Operas of Verdi’. Vol. 2 p. 253). Verdi’s regard for his composition, and he was his own sternest critic, meant that although the work fell into neglect, the possibility of revision and revival was never far from his mind. However, it was not until after ‘Aida’ (premiered 1871) that his publisher, Ricordi, and Boito, a consummate poet and a composer in his own right, convinced Verdi that the time was right to re-visit Boccanegra. The revision was a triumph at La Scala on 24th March 1881; it is in this later form that we know the opera today. It is this version that is featured on the recordings referred to below. As to the ‘original’ Boccanegra, it is claimed in the accompanying booklet that this performance was the first time it had been heard for over 100 years! The pace of the Verdi revival over the past 25 years or so, and the centenary of the composer’s death, has brought other performances. Whether any will appear on record remains to be seen. In the meantime this performance can justifiably lead the field in quality terms even if it is a ‘one horse’ race.

Most focus on the 1881 revision has been on the addition of ‘The Council Chamber Scene’, one of high drama into which Verdi poured his mature genius and which makes considerable demands on the baritone singing the eponymous role. There are two outstanding recordings of the 1881 version, the most modern, marvellously conducted by Abbado (1977), features Cappuccilli as Boccanegra in one of his best recorded portrayals associated as it was with staged performances at La Scala (DG). The other has Tito Gobbi as the Doge matched by the implacable Fiesco of Christoff. Gobbi’s biting characterisation is unsurpassed, but the 1958 mono recording now sounds rather dated and Santini’s conducting lacks the fire that is within the score. However, the musical differences between the original and the revision are far greater than the addition of the famous scene. They start with the ‘Prelude’. Whilst in the 1881 version the quiet E major chords are evocative of the sea and flowing tides, the entrance of Paolo who demands, of Pietro, ‘Che dicesti?’ (What did you say) comes after only 1:20, whilst in this original version we have a complete ‘Prelude’ which opens with distinctly martial music before evolving with motifs heard later in the opera (CD 1 tr.1). Similarly the Act I ‘dawn’ prelude of 1881, again so evocative, is far superior to the introduction to Amelia’s ‘Come in quest’ora’ (tr. 9) here, which simply flows from a very different, and brief, introduction. The 1881 re-workings did not end with such simple examples however. The confrontation of Boccanegra, now Doge, with Amelia, ward of his enemy Fiesco, and the mutual recognition of their relationship, was significantly re-worked whilst having obvious echoes of the original portrayed here (CD 1 trs. 17-21). Such analysis can be made throughout the work and perhaps some space could have been found in the booklet to highlight the more important examples.

What is common between the two versions of the opera is the requirement for quality singing and, if not matching the great interpretations referred to, the solo contributions here are never less than adequate. The name part is taken by Sesto Bruscantini (1919-2003), who debuted at La Scala in 1949 and sang over 100 performances in 17 operas before his final role there as Don Pasquale in 1985. He is well remembered in Britain for his work at Glyndebourne. He is best known on record for his portrayals in Mozart and buffo roles where his considerable comic gifts are well utilised. However, Bruscantini had 130 roles in his repertoire including heavier roles such as Scarpia (Puccini’s Tosca) and he brings that immense experience here as a musical and dramatically appropriate Doge in his many moods; enemy, ruler, father and magnanimous facilitator. As Boccanegra’s later-reconciled (CD 2 tr. 16) enemy, Fiesco, Gwynne Howell has a rare opportunity to shine on record in a ‘primo’ rather than a ‘comprimario’ part. He does so with distinction, and if not quite erasing the memories of Ghiaurov (DG) or Christoff (EMI), sings with true steady tone in the aria ‘Il lacerato spirito’ (CD 1 tr.5) and in reflecting the character’s uncertainty, agony and pathos as Fiesco realises that the poisoned and dying Boccanegra is the father of Amelia and that she is his grand-daughter (CD 2 tr. 15). Amelia is the only female part in the opera with its predominantly dark-toned male voices reflecting the deeds of the plot. The role requires a soprano voice with body as well as variety and intensity of expression, able to give full weight and colour to the histrionic demands. Victoria de los Angeles (EMI) was appropriately voiced in Act I but lacked some weight and colour for the more dramatic moments, whilst Mirella Freni (DG) with her fuller tone colour across the range I find ideal, although she is run close by Kiri Te Kanawa on Solti’s otherwise undistinguished recording (Decca). On this present recording I found Josella Ligi a distinct disappointment. Her tone is full and vibrant, as is required for the dramatic parts, but has raw patches and her lumpy phrasing and lack of legato is a distinct drawback in the more lyrical moments of Act I (CD 1 trs. 9-11). As her somewhat impetuous lover Gabrielle Adorno, André Turp has moments of delicate phrasing (CD 1 tr. 13) mixed with over-strain at climaxes (tr. 25), but generally gives an appropriately ardent and virile interpretation. The important ‘comprimario’ part of Paolo is well taken by William Elvin who sang many such roles at Covent Garden in 1970s. The choir are strong, well articulated and virile (Act I Finale. CD 1 trs. 22-28) and, to my ears, are distinctly more idiomatic than as ‘witches’ in Macbeth. Likewise I find Matheson a more vital conductor here than on the previous issue. If he doesn’t shape the Verdian phrases like Abbado, that is merely to compare the merely good with the truly great and not a fair comparison!

It is a pleasure to have this original version of Simon Boccanegra available on CD. I strongly recommend it to all opera lovers, and to Verdians in particular. It not only allows the leisurely hearing of the composer’s first thoughts, but will also provide the enthusiast with the opportunity for countless hours of pleasure comparing it with the later and better-known version, which was in reality a ‘dry run’ for the great final masterpieces of Otello and Falstaff. A big gap in the catalogue filled at last and with a good all-round performance.

Robert J Farr

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