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!
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.
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