Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge

As part of our musical November theme, we are covering historical events that are related with some exceptional and interesting modern pieces of music. Our case for today offers us with a window into the 14th and 19th century, to learn about a powerful Italian man, and from the point of view of another Italian; an opera master. How this concoction came to happen? Well, keep on reading 🙂

Only in Italy a pirate could become ruler, or more precisely Doge, of an important city such as Genoa. For those unaware of the power politics of this geographical area, Italy was divided in two factions: the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting the Pope and the holy Roman Emperor respectively- the north of Italy had been and would be a political war zone for years, even centuries. The situation was tame down with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, but this division and game of allegiances continued well into the 15th century. So, time came to decide who was going to be boss in Genoa in 1339, and the Ghibellines put forward this interesting fella, Simone Boccanegra, who according to Verdi’s opera was a pirate. In the opposition sat the Guelph candidate, who was an old school aristocrat. But as it stands up until the 16th century the Doge was elected by popular vote in Genoa, and thus our man comes to power.

Boccanegra managed to expand Genoa’s borders up to the north towards the French and Italian Rivieras. However, his background put him in a fairly complicated and dangerous situation: there were several attempts to get rid of him. For that reason, he used to carry around a personal guard of 103 armed and mounted men. These guards seem to have been sent from Pisa, traditionally a Genoese enemy, but that was now influenced by  Simone’s brother Niccolo. Eventually, the pressure on Boccanegra forced him to give up power in 1344, but it was not for long that he was out of the office as he came back in 1356 for his second mandate. Yet, once again, he was not destined to last too long at the top…And in fact it seems that he was brutally murdered by poison in 1363, although the details around his death and this event are somewhat sketchy…He was then buried at the church of San Francesco in Castelletto.

So in this fairly bleak and brief story of power and ultimate failure, Verdi found the right scenery for a love story, as Boccanegra accepts this position of power to rescue his lover Maria, daughter of the patrician Fiesco, who has imprisoned her as the result of their union bore an illegitimate child. Maria is found dead as Simone is proclaimed Doge, leaving him hollow inside and in a path for vengeance. His daughter, Maria as well, is long-lost, but she will make a reappearance, unknown to both her father and grandfather of her true identity she will become a key character of the play and the political scene of Genoa, whose lover Gabriele, yet another patrician is plotting in secret with Fiesco to bring down Boccanegra.

This set of twists and turns, almost Shakespearean in essence, took not one, but two attempts for Verdi to be happy with the production. The original version was composed in 1857, and it was meant to be the musical creation of a libretto written in prose but the piece did not enjoy much success, potentially due to some production and composition issues. However, several years later, with the encouragement and revisions suggested by Giulio Ricordi and the exciting opportunity of working alongside Arrigo Boito- who interestingly enough had just been working on an adaptation of Othello- Verdi decided to give the piece one more chance. And thus, this magnificent piece became of the classics within the modern operatic repertoire, and Simone Boccanegra’s story is perhaps not so forgotten.

..And if you want to know how it sounds, then here you have a sample- Placido Domingo on the stage.



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