Cheat Sheet: Simon Boccanegra
Everything you need to know about Verdi's compelling opera
Giuseppi Verdi was the most famous of Italian opera composers.
He was born in Italy to a poor family, but by the time he died, he was so revered that more than 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay him tribute.
Verdi wrote big, beautiful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. As a composer, he was always seeking out strong subjects, demanding his librettists create realistic, human characterisations.
He had a special gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage — whether it be a courtesan in La Traviata, a hunch-backed jester in Rigoletto or an enslaved Ethiopian princess in Aida.
A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886.
In the murky political waters of Genoa, every man has an enemy. Simon Boccanegra has many. Even as Doge of Genoa, the secrets of his past haunt him: twenty-five years ago, his lover Maria died, and their daughter vanished.
Maria's father swore vengeance, and now lives in hiding, plotting with his adopted daughter's lover to overthrow the Doge.
Boccanegra is about to discover his lost daughter in the most unexpected place, but is it too late to change the course of his life?
In the Council of Genoa, friendly faces hide dark intentions, and Boccanegra's enemies are already rising.
Who are the main players?
Simon Boccanegra: elected as Doge of Genoa, just after he discovers his lover Maria is dead. They have a daughter, but the child has vanished.
Jacopo Fiesco: Maria's father, and grandfather of the missing child. As an enemy of Boccanegra, he is exiled from Venice and living under the false name Grimaldi.
Amelia Grimaldi: adopted daughter of Jacopo, and coincidentally, Simon's missing daughter
Gabriele Adorno: Amelia's lover, enemy of the Doge
Something to listen out for
Genoa is positioned by the sea, and Verdi uses music to paint a picture of its peace and power throughout the opera, from the first bars of the overture, which gently 'rock' back and forth like waves.
Verdi abandons any operatic conventions that might interfere with the drama, which progresses uninterrupted through this opera. Instead of big chorus set-pieces, we have the thrilling power of that great ensemble intertwined by solo lines from the main players. The famous Council Chamber scene at the end of Act 1 is a great example — the fragments of melody from each character advance the plot like flashes of lightning, as the drama proceeds at pace. It's simple and effective, and shows off Verdi's maturity as a composer.
... a new take on Moffatt Oxenbould's 2000 production, directed by Matthew Barclay. Oxenbould wanted to avoid embroiling his characters in the complex politics of 14th-century Liguria, so has set this opera in Verdi's own time (approximately 175 years ago) in an abandoned place by the sea. An Italian community has gathered to re-enact a story from their past as a reminder to their own and future generations to pursue love, peace and reconciliation.
A production photograph from Opera Australia's 2000 production of Simon Boccanegra. Photo credit: Branco Gaica.
The history of this troubled opera reflects a little of Verdi's maturity as a composer (and a man) by the 1880s. He first premiered this opera in 1857 in Venice, and any merit in the music was lost in the gloomy, complex, impossible-to-follow libretto.
It is perhaps only Verdi's love for Genoa and his own politics that explain Verdi's attraction to this story: a rambling, complex play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez (who also wrote the source material for Il Trovatore). Even Verdi was harsh with the resulting opera, describing it as "cold, monotonous" and a "fiasco". After a few performances, it looked set to be forgotten.
More than two decades passed before Verdi's publisher convinced him to revisit it, with the help of the composer and librettist Boito. Perhaps Verdi wanted to test out their working relationship — the pair would go on to write Otello, one of Verdi's greatest operas. Corresponding with his new partner, Verdi compared the opera to a rickety table... "but if we adjust a leg or two, i think it will stand".
While Boito tightened the text and gave Verdi some wonderfully dramatic scenes (the famous Council Chamber scene, for one), Verdi reworked the music, seeking to give it more "contrast and variety, more life". The revised music is richer, the orchestration more sophisticated and the climaxes more dramatic.
The new version premiered in Milan in 1881 and it is this version that has won a place in the canon.
Set design by Girolamo Magnani for the 1881 revision of Simon Boccanegra, which premiered at La Scala in 1881.
- Verdi completely reworked the opera more than 20 years after he described its premiere as a "fiasco".
- There was a real Simon Boccanegra (spelt Simone) in Genoa in the 1300s. He inspired all kinds of conspiracies and attempts on his life, and his death may have been by poison.
- As a young man, Verdi fell in love with his music student Margherita, married her and fathered two children. Both died as infants and his wife died shortly after, devastating the composer.
- Years later, he fell in love with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, and they lived scandalously together out of wedlock until they married.
- The crowd at Verdi's funeral was so large that it remains the largest public assembly ever held in Italy.
The composer: Verdi. Italian. 19th century. Famous for La Traviata and Rigoletto, among many others.
The music: Big, beautiful melodies with expressive, dramatic orchestral music.
The big hit:
The setting: an abandoned place by the sea, about 175 years ago.
The history: Even Verdi called the premiere a 'fiasco'. It took a complete revision, 24 years later, to ensure the opera wasn't forgotten by history.
A quirky fact to impress your date: There was a real Simon Boccanegra (spelt Simone) in Genoa in the 1300s. He inspired all kinds of conspiracies and attempts on his life, and his death may have been by poison.