Set design by Girolamo Magnani for 1881 revision
Royal Opera, Simon Boccanegra, opera in a prologue and three acts, 15thNovember 2018, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave revised by Arrigo Boito, orchestra conducted by Henrik Nánási, reviewed by Leslie Jones
The plot of Simon Boccanegra is complex and convoluted, even by the standards of Grand Opera. Contemporary critic Filippo Filippi complained that librettist Francesco Maria Piave only added to Garcia Gutiérrez’ play, upon which it is based, “a fantastic tissue of loves, abductions, betrayals, ready poisons and threatening axes”. Filippi’s final, damning verdict was that “There is no rhyme or reason nor any apparent justification of the strange comings and goings of the characters” (‘A Vital Legacy’, Alexandra Wilson, Official Programme).To complicate matters further, some of the characters, such as Jacopo Fiesco aka Andrea Grimaldi, have assumed identities.
Yet certain key themes or salient elements can be identified, the libretto’s “incomprehensibility” notwithstanding. As historian Christopher Wintle reminds us, in 1838 Verdi lost his daughter Virginia and two years later his wife Margherita (‘Padre, Madre, Figlia’, Official Programme). Wintle contends that Verdi subsequently sought out subjects that allowed him work through these losses, witness the ‘recognition’ scene in which Boccanegra and his daughter are re-united. The theme of a father losing a daughter is, of course, also central to Rigoletto. And several of the characters in Simon Boccanegra contend with mourning and loss, notably Fiesco (played by Ferruccio Furlanetto). In the prologue, we learn that his daughter Maria, who was seduced by Boccanegra, has recently died. “Heaven”, he proclaims, “has placed a martyr’s crown on her head”. And Amelia herself, as portrayed by the talented Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenez, mourns for the loss of her “mother”, in reality, her adoptive mother.
The sea, sometimes a symbol of death, is another key referent in Simon Boccanegra. Jonathan Burton speaks eloquently of Verdi’s “sea pictures”, notably in the exquisite prelude and in Act 1, scene 1. He considers the “sight and sound of the sea” the essential background to the score (‘A Pearl of Immeasurable Price’, Official Programme). “Come rest your eyes on the shimmering sea”, Amelia adjures. For the ailing George Solti, the end of this opera represented mortality.
Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Simon Boccanegra was first staged in 1991. The sumptuous costumes and the sets evoke medieval painting. But the Graffiti is reportedly showing signs of wear and tear.
Critic Mark Pullinger cleverly connected the machinations in Simon Boccanegra with Thursday’s events in a London “rife with conspiracy, recrimination and infighting” (bachtrack, 16th November). Bravo, we should have thought of that!
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review