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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts. Revised 1881 Edition
Original libretto by Francesco Maria Piave for the premiere in 1857, and based on the play Simon Boccanegra by Antonio García Gutiérrez, with additions and modifications by Arrigo Boito. Revised edition first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 24th March 1881
Simon Boccanegra, Corsair and Doge of Genoa - Leo Nucci (bar); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi - Kiri Te Kanawa (sop); Jacapo Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman - Paata Burchuladze (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, a Genoese gentleman in love with Maria - Giacomo Arragall (ten); Paola Albiani, a courtier - Paolo Coni (bar); Pietro, another courtier - Carlo Colombara (bass)
Orchestra and chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Georg Solti
Recorded in the Sala Abanella, Milan. December 1988
DECCA CLASSIC OPERA 475 7011 DM2 [73.27 + 51.46]


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It was during Verdi’s presence in Paris for the production of Les Vêpres siciliennes that he accepted a commission from the Teatro la Fenice in Venice for the 1856-57 season. He decided on the subject of Simon Boccanegra, based like Il Trovatore on a play by Gutiérrez. It was an ideal subject 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 of the subject, and despite the action being set in 14th century Genoa, the Censors gave Verdi and his librettist, Piave, a hard time. 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 was a bigger fiasco than 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 its details’. 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. In 1880 Verdi had written nothing substantial since his Requiem in 1874 and nothing operatic since Aida ten years earlier. His publisher, Ricordi, raised the subject of a re-write of Boccanegra. Although in private he was seriously considering Boito’s proposals for an Otello opera, in public he gave the impression that he had hung up his pen. When Ricordi told Verdi that Boito himself would revise the libretto the composer agreed to undertake the task and the secret project codenamed ‘chocolate’, in fact Otello, was put on hold. The revision was a triumph at La Scala on March 24th 1881 and it is in this later form that we know the opera today. This is the version featured on this recording. When reviewing Opera Rara’s issue of a 1976 BBC performance of the original version (link), I noted the claim that the performance was the first time the original had been heard for over 100 years!

Verdi undertook a major revision of the dramatic aspects of the score of Boccanegra whilst leaving the more lyrical passages largely unchanged. A major change was the addition of the Council Chamber Scene which is the crowning glory of the revision (CD 1 trs13-17 ). It is a scene 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 on DG), features Cappuccilli as Boccanegra in one of his best recorded portrayals associated as it was with staged performances at La Scala. 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 fire.

In this recording Leo Nucci as Boccanegra cannot match Cappuccilli for tonal weight, breadth of phrase or characterisation. In the Council Chamber scene his Boccanegra does not dominate the assembled patricians and plebeians (CD 1 tr. 16). Nor is there any tingle factor when he calls Paolo’s name as Gabriele keeps his sword (tr. 17). Here as elsewhere Solti’s conducting is curiously uninvolved. He seems to have little feeling for the score in either its dramatic or lyrical moments such as the lovely opening of act one and Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna (CD 1 trs. 6-7). His renowned brio and dramatic thrust are lacking, the effect highlighted by the rather flat recorded ambience. The DG recording, made in the CTC Studio, Milan, in January 1977, has much greater warmth and presence.

It is perhaps adding further injury to state that none of the other principal soloists is a match for their DG counterparts. I must also note that the printed libretto and English translation provided is taken verbatim from the DG issue and acknowledged as such. What is not stated is that this performance has brief cuts here and there. Its total timing matches that of the 1973 recording on RCA conducted by Gavazzeni and is around eleven minutes shorter than the more complete EMI and DG issues. The only virtue of this is that the Council Chamber scene is not split over the two discs.

This recording might have filled a hole in the Decca catalogue of Verdi operas. It has few other virtues that I can find, even without the comparison of Abbado’s excellently sung, recorded and played performance, also now at mid price. This performance will not find space on my shelves alongside the other versions referred to. I find little to commend in it.

Robert J Farr



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