In search of Verdi’s first Simon Boccanegra

In search of Verdi’s first Simon Boccanegra

Roger Parker investigates Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, introducing the new critical edition of the first version (1857) which is now available on hire at Casa Ricordi.

Verdi’s decision to write a new opera for Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, to be performed in the early months of 1857, is elaborated documented. By mid-1856 Verdi had clearly decided to write an opera for the Carnival season 1856-1857, but was reluctant to commit to a theatre or a specific topic, quite possibly because he was still considering the prospect of creating a version of Re Lear. It was only in late July, on the eve of a six-month trip to Paris, in a letter to his long-serving (and long-suffering) librettist Piave, that we first hear of Verdi’s decision to set to music another drama by Antonio García Gutiérrez, his Simón Bocanegra, first performed in Madrid in 1843. It is clear that Verdi worked in Paris on the Boccanegra libretto, using for this purpose Giuseppe Montanelli, a Tuscan poet and politician who had been exiled to France. And then, on his return to Italy, he spent an intense four–week period across January/February 1857 composing the basic musical fabric of the opera. On 18 February Verdi left for Venice and, as was his usual practice, both rehearsed the singers and orchestrated the entire score soon as he was in situ. There were the usual last-minute problems, perhaps in particular with the costumes, some of which were, at the dress rehearsal on 10 March, pronounced “indegni” and even “indecentissimi”. The first performance took place on 12 March.

It was, and famously, not a success. As usual the newspaper and journal reviews showed a very wide variety of opinions, with Ricordi’s Gazzetta musicale di Milano (understandably) much more positive than most of the Venetian papers. The principal singers were applauded but the audience’s tepid reaction was (according to the critics) brought on by the generally darks colours of the drama and by the fact that much of the score exploiting a declamato vocal delivery. Perhaps in part because of this indifferent reception, Verdi personally supervised an early revival of the opera in Reggio Emilia in June 1857, in the process making some important changes to his score, both musical and scenic. But in most subsequent revivals the public remained unable to appreciate the opera’s unusual qualities; Boccanegra became known as a “problem” piece and was avoided in the most prestigious theatres. Quite soon revivals were mostly restricted to minor venues, and even these had dried up by the early 1870s. But by that time a young Giulio Ricordi, anxious to promote the opera further, was hatching plans for a more thoroughgoing revision, one that would eventually see the light in 1881.

The new Ricordi edition of the 1857 Simon Boccanegra is the first based on Verdi’s autograph scores of the opera. All previous versions have derived their musical text from an early Ricordi vocal score and various manuscript copies. The latter are fairly reliable in reporting the notes Verdi wrote; but in terms of dynamics, phrasing and other vital aspects of articulation they are approximate. The autograph materials thus provide a rich new resource, offering us the chance to see Verdi’s richly detailed musical instructions for the first time.

However, these autograph materials are complex and in places very difficult to decipher. They come in two distinct layers, housed in two different venues: the first is material that originally belonged to the 1857 autograph score, and was then discarded by Verdi when he came to make his revisions in 1881; the second is Verdi’s autograph of the 1881 version, approximately half of which retained material from 1857.

Of course there will be many who insist that the 1881 revision of Boccanegra is superior in every way. It is certainly different, responding as it does to a musical and political world that had changed radically from that in the late 1850s. However, if the 1881 revisions had not come into being, it is certain that the 1857 version would hold an important place in Verdi “canon”. It is in many ways a vital stage in Verdi’s development during that period, at a time when he charted a course from his famous middle-period “trilogy” to the international style of the later works. If this new edition encourages such revaluation, in the process revealing some of Verdi’s most compelling musical experiments of the 1850s, it will have achieved its purpose.

Roger Parker

Details and hire

Discover the critical edition series