Not-so-simple Simon

Verdi was prone to reworking his operas, for both artistic and political reasons. Will the real `Simon Boccanegra' please take the stage.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
How many operas did Verdi compose? A music dictionary will probably give the number as 28. But this figure assumes that, of the seven operas that the composer revised and/or re-wrote, those with different titles are in effect different operas (which some of them realistically are not), while those retaining the same title are in effect the same opera (which some of them definitely are not).

Confused? It is a confusing situation, and one that the Royal Opera's annual Verdi Festival has this year confronted head on by staging both versions of Verdi's gloomy family saga, Simon Boccanegra - the first premiered (to general bewilderment) at Venice's Teatro La Fenice in 1857; the second unveiled (to broad acclaim) at La Scala, Milan, 24 years later - within a few weeks of one another. It's a rare opportunity for both pundits and punters to compare how the composer's first and second thoughts really work in the theatre.

So it's two operas for the price of one, then? Well, not exactly: more like one opera for the price of two. Each of the two versions of Boccanegra has been given a separate staging, with different conductors, different directors and designers, different casts. Given Covent Garden's current ability to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons (the sudden exit of one general director, followed all too swiftly by the unadvertised appointment of her successor; the unseemly diverting of Lottery funds - aka "the people's money" - into staff redundancy payments; the last- minute cancellation of tonight's scheduled staging of Verdi's Macbeth), the last thing the Royal Opera needs now is to be accused of yet more extravagant self-indulgence. Yet here it is spending twice the budget on two separate stagings of the same work.

But there's method in their madness. The two versions of Boccanegra feel so much like separate pieces, and are structured so differently, that there's a powerful artistic case for presenting them as such. Verdi's lifelong habit of recasting his operas was prompted partly by his own desire to maximise the artistic potential of his works, partly by the varying demands of the theatres in the different states and countries for which he wrote them. The canon of changes starts with I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards at the First Crusade), written for La Scala in 1843 and revised (not over-substantially) in a French version entitled Jerusalem for a production in Paris four years later. Macbeth, premiered at Florence's Pergola Theatre in 1847, went through rather more radical transformation for its Paris staging in 1865. Parisian operatic taste at the time insisted beyond contradiction that all operas had to include a ballet. So Verdi, besides making other changes (most importantly to Lady M's sleep-walking scene), duly composed a ballet for the witches, with a guest appearance by the goddess Hecate. It's the original 1847 version that will be heard (if not seen) at Covent Garden tonight.

The two versions of Don Carlos present the same scenario in reverse - composed to a French text for Paris in 1867, Verdi's epic realisation of Schiller was revived at La Scala, Milan, in 1884, in a revised Italian edition that omitted the first of its five acts, trimmed the remainder, and cut the compulsory Paris ballet.

"Once there had to be an amputation, I preferred to wield the knife myself," Verdi said of Don Carlos. In other cases, though, it was the censor who made the cuts. Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), written for politically nervous Rome in 1859, shortly after an assassination attempt upon Napoleon III, had its setting and characters transplanted from 18th-century Sweden to British colonial North America: the music-loving King Gustav III (founder of the Drottningholm Court Theatre) was downgraded to Richard, Earl of Warwick, governor of Boston, while his friend and future assassin, the aristocratic Count Anckarstroem, was reborn as Renato, his Creole PA. (Confusion again, modern practice now usually changes them back.)

With its tale of a 19th-century Lutheran priest who is not only married, but forgives his wife when he catches her in flagrante, Stiffelio was considered so shocking to fundamentalist Catholic sensibilities that, seven years after its 1850 premiere in Trieste, it resurfaced in Rimini as Aroldo, a sort of Gli Inglesi tornati della terza crociata (The English Back from the Third Crusade) set partly in medieval Kent, partly by the shores of Loch Lomond.

That leaves La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) and Simon Boccanegra, whose revisions for once owe more to artistic considerations than political ones. Seven years after Forza's St Petersburg premiere in 1862, Verdi reworked it for La Scala, reordering elements of the third act and, more crucially, substituting a finale of saintly benediction for the hellfire- and-suicide denouement of the original. Effectively, though, these are still two versions of the same opera, rather than something closer to two different operas - the situation presented by Simon Boccanegra.

Audiences at La Fenice in 1857 were sharply taken aback by Boccanegra, which finds Verdi's dramatic instincts at their most uncompromising. The story, set in 14th-century Genoa, tells of the political and personal tribulations of Boccanegra, ex-pirate and reluctant if long-serving Doge of the city. The austere musical idiom almost totally rejects traditional Italianate lyricism in favour of an unsparing dramatic realism, darkly and powerfully dominated by male voices, with much of the action conveyed in unadorned, almost recitative-like voice and accompaniment.

The first Boccanegra soon disappeared from the Italian stage, and when its much more familiar successor was unveiled at La Scala in 1881, Verdi's operatic style had of course changed. That the second version exists is due to the fortunate convergence of several factors: the astuteness of Verdi's publisher, Giulio Ricordi, in coaxing the composer out of the latest of his self-proclaimed retirements, the skills of Verdi's new librettist, Arrigo Boito, who initiated some (but by no means all) of the revisions, and Verdi's own belief that the work's underlying strengths made the stylistic gulf of 24 years worth trying to bridge.

Major gains of the revision include the addition of the wholly new Council Chamber scene at the end of Act 1 (a display of thrilling mastery in the manner of Verdi's soon-to-be-written Otello) and subtle changes in characterisation, so that Boccanegra, for instance, becomes more idealistic while Paolo, his loyal lieutenant turned traitor, emerges as more Iago-esque in his villainy (Boito's idea).

There are also purely musical developments. One is the aria sung by Boccanegra's long-lost daughter Amelia beside the Genoese seashore at the start of Act 1: the vocal line is identical to the 1857 version, but the intricately shimmering orchestral accompaniment is the work of late Verdi. The beautiful, wave-like music that now opens the Prologue dates from 1881, but many of the finest things in Acts 2 and 3 are essentially as Verdi composed them in 1857.

No one is currently better equipped to assess the different merits of the two versions than Mark Elder, who has conducted both the standard 1881 score (during his tenure as music director at ENO) and the 1857 original - in a concert reading, given at the inaugural Covent Garden Verdi Festival in 1995, that was so successful it led directly to this weekend's UK stage premiere, again with Elder conducting (but now with Placido Domingo, rather than his protege Jose Cura, as Gabriele Adorno).

Elder's long familiarity with the 1857 score began, he tells me, with the acquisition many years ago of a vocal score, plus the experience of hearing a studio recording made in Italy, "I think, with Sesto Bruscantini in the title role. The negative response of those first audiences isn't so surprising. The idea of the baritone rather than the tenor being the hero wasn't unprecedented - Verdi had already done this in I Due Foscari, where the hero is another Doge [of Venice]. But Boccanegra was something quite different."

Elder has no doubts as to the 1857 score's viability for the stage, at least in the context of an event like the Royal Opera's Verdi Festival, with its aim of surveying all the composer's works in time for the centenary of his death in 2001. "All the main lyrical moments are already there, and it's arguable that the emotional highlights make a bigger impact by being surrounded with large amounts of dry recitative. Also, when you're conducting the 1881 version, one of the major problems is how to prevent Acts 2 and 3 being a let-down after the Council Chamber scene. The original version doesn't have that scene, and so the whole structure grows naturally towards its climax at the end. I do think it's a festival work rather than a repertory work. But it has its own integrity and wholeness, and it's right to stage it separately. It needs to be given its own frame"n

`Macbeth' (1847): tonight, then 30 June, 3, 5 July. `Boccanegra' (1857): tomorrow, then 2, 4, 8, 10 July (4 July also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3) Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC1 (0171-304 4000). A WNO production of `Boccanegra' (1881) is currently on tour at the Bristol Hippodrome (0117-929 9444), then North Wales Theatre, Llandudno, Apollo, Oxford and Mayflower, Southampton