Brilliance in Darkness: Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'

woo-1502-simon-250When Giuseppe Verdi's publisher approached the composer in 1881, about creating a brand new version of a decades-old opera, Verdi was nearly seventy years old. He was also about to prove that, at least in his case, age was no impediment to continued greatness.

The opera in question was Simon Boccanegra. The original version was composed in 1857, with a libretto by Francesco Piave, whose resume already included Verdi's hits Rigoletto and La Traviata. Still, the world premiere was a flop.

Nearly 25 years later, when the composer had another go at it, he enlisted librettist Arrigo Boito, who also wrote the texts for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff -- giving him a pretty good resume, too. Both composer and librettist thought Boccanegra was "too sad and desolate," and they sought to lighten it up a little. Their revision did little to make the opera lighter, but it did make it better.

Among many other changes, Boito added the famous Council Chamber scene. It's a sequence the younger Verdi might have struggled with in the 1850s. By 1880, with its potential for powerful ensembles, vivid characterization and high drama, the scene was right up Verdi's alley.

Along with complex characters, plenty of spectacle and a deep, psychological underpinning, Simon Boccanegra also had a couple of key dramatic elements that fell right into Verdi's wheelhouse. Throughout his career, the composer had an affinity for creating complex and highly-nuanced baritone roles. Just think of Rigoletto, Germont in La Traviata, the villain Iago in Otello and the title role in Falstaff -- and then add Simon Boccanegra to the list.

The other ingredient in Simon Boccanegra that brought out the composer's best is a touching relationship between a father and his daughter. Verdi's own life as a father was tragic, almost from the beginning. His first wife died, as did their two children, while Verdi was still in his 20s. At the time, he was just getting his start as an opera composer.

As he grew more and more successful, Verdi often relied on tragic stories featuring the deep love between fathers and their children -- and especially between fathers and daughters. There's Rigoletto, an opera in which the title character -- a devoted father -- inadvertently causes his own daughter's death. There's Aida, whose father applies a major guilt trip, forcing her to betray her lover. And, of course, there's the complicated, father and daughter-in-law encounter in La Traviata. Then, just a few years after Traviata, Verdi created a father-daughter bond that may top all the others, as the centerpiece of his intensely emotional Simon Boccanegra.

Just as it took Verdi a while to come to grips with Boccanegra, it has also taken a long time for the opera to earn its way among so many Verdi masterpieces. But by now, it's widely recognized as one of the finest and most moving dramas he ever composed.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Simone Boccanegra from one of opera's most glamorous destinations, La Fenice in Venice. Baritone Simone Piazzola stars in the title role, in a production led by conductor Myung-Whun Chun.