Birth of a Nation | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Birth of a Nation
As Houston Grand Opera presents its stirring production of Simon Boccanegra, George Jellinek uncovers the real Boccanegra and the political Verdi.

When Verdi was born in 1813, his birthplace, the tiny village of Le Roncole in the duchy of Parma, was part of Napoleon's empire. So was Simon Boccanegra's city, Genoa, less than 100 miles away, a vital seaport then, now, and throughout the turbulent centuries of its history. When Napoleon fell two years later, Parma came under Austrian domination, while Genoa was annexed by Piedmont and Sardinia, a kingdom that was to become the foundation of a united Italy &mdash a cause for which Verdi worked with fanatical zeal until it became a reality 45 years later.

But back in 1815, the independent-minded Genoese did not welcome their enforced union with any kingdom. In past centuries, Genoa &mdash like the other city-states of Venice, Pisa and Florence &mdash had flourished under various forms of republican governments. Genoa's strength was constantly dissipated, however, in fratricidal wars with rival city-states. During a particularly tumultuous period, from 1257 to 1262, Genoa was governed by a prosperous commoner named Guglielmo Boccanegra, who tried but proved unable to curb the power of the city's self-serving nobility. In the end, that early Boccanegra was exiled, and Genoa continued its perennial struggles.

Members of Genoa's prominent noble families &mdash the Doria, Spinola, Grimaldi, and Fieschi &mdash governed the city in the succeeding decades, but internal peace was rare and never long-lasting. Eventually, the economic decline and widespread discontent caused by a century of destructive internal and external wars exploded into a popular uprising in 1339. The nobles were driven from power and a new head of state was chosen with wider powers and the title of "Doge," following the Venetian example. It was specifically mandated that no one of noble birth could carry that high office. The first Doge of the new Genoese republic was Simon Boccanegra.

Simon Boccanegra, the opera he inspired, represents a significant link in the chain of Verdi operas that express the composer's recurrent concern with two political themes: the tyrannical abuse of power and the cause of Italian unification. By 1840, young Verdi had become attracted to the patriotic movement of Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), the first architect of the Risorgimento, an ardent republican and, incidentally, a native of Genoa. Nabucco (1842) was the first Verdi opera in which the spirit of the Risorgimento was unmistakably heard. No Italian could fail to identify the plight of the enslaved Hebrews of the Old Testament with that of subjugated Italy, and the magnificent chorus "Va, pensiero" soon passed through all Italy with its patriotic message beautifully set to deeply moving yet uncensorable words like "O, mia patria, si bella e perduta" ("My fatherland, so beautiful and lost").

Verdi's next opera, I Lombardi (1843),was set in the time of the Crusades, but its famous chorus "O Signore, dal tetto natio" delivered the same patriotic message. Even more powerful was the line Verdi gave the Roman general Ezio in Attila (1846): "Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me!" ("You may have the universe, but leave Italy to me!")

The music Verdi wrote for Macbeth (1847) had nothing to do with Scotland of the 11th or any other century: Macduff's rebellious troops sang "Fratelli! gli oppressi corriamo a salvar!" ("Brothers, let us rush to save the oppressed!"), and marched to rousing tunes similar to those written &mdash some by Verdi himself &mdash for Garibaldi's troops.

Verdi injected his patriotic views into his operas by reminding specific localities of their own glorious past and traditions, and by recurrent cries for unification. Venice is glorified in I due Foscari (1844), an opera that resembles Simon Boccanegra in many ways, a family tragedy unfolding in a city torn by internal strife. In the revolutionary year of 1848, it was La battaglia di Legnano that carried Verdi's patriotic cry. The opera's subject deals with faraway history, the invasion of Italy by the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa in the 12th century, and his defeat by the armies of the Lombard League. It so happened that in 1848 there was a heroic but short-lived attempt in Lombardy to shake the Austrian yoke, and for a few days Milan enjoyed a brief illusion of freedom. La battaglia di Legnano is generously peppered with fiery cries for unity, and its second act, set in dissident Como, offers a powerful lesson to Italians everywhere: that victory would always elude them as long as individual regions persisted in divisive struggles.

When Verdi signed a contract with the Teatro la Fenice of Venice (in May 1856), his choice fell on Simon Boccanegra. By then the city of Genoa had grown especially close to his heart; he would often escape to the gentle Ligurian climate from the harsh winters of Parma. The orchestral introduction to the opera's first act, aside from being a musical seascape, is also a paean to the scenic beauty of Genoa, with its placid seacoast where (to quote Amelia's line in the libretto) "the stars and sea are smiling, and the moon's radiance merges with the waves."

Verdi's opera was based on a play by the Spanish playwright Antonio Garc‹a Guti_rrez, author of the original source for Verdi's earlier Il trovatore. Though both Guti_rrez's play and Piave's opera libretto display a considerable measure of historical faithfulness, a few departures from historical fact should be noted. The real Simon Boccanegra was not a corsaro (a sea captain with implied piratical inclinations), but an eminent citizen of means and honorable reputation. It was his brother Egidio who was known for his sea adventures. In the service of Alfonso XI, King of Castile, Egidio distinguished himself in many sea battles and was credited with the destruction of the pirates who threatened Genoa's commercial lifeline.

Taking an understandable poetic license, Guti_rrez and Piave combined the two brothers into one, surrounding the drama's Simon with an appealingly Romantic maritime aura. The sea, in fact, plays a prominent part throughout the entire opera. Its atmosphere is evoked in the orchestral Prelude to Act I and in the magically orchestrated accompaniment to Amelia's aria, which follows. Later, in Act III, his body already weakened by the poison that slowly consumes him, Simon looks out on the sea, recalls his early adventures, and wishes that he could have found death then, "in the sea's friendly bosom."

The libretto clearly specifies that 25 years elapse between the Prologue (Simon's election and Fiesco's exile) and the rest of the opera, which culminates in the Doge's fatal poisoning and his succession by Gabriele Adorno. All this more or less coincides with historical facts, though the opera fails to indicate that Boccanegra actually had two, nonconsecutive terms as Doge. Tired of the usual intrigues in 1344, he resigned and went into exile in Pisa. But he returned in 1356, was reelected, and resolved to fight his opponents with stronger measures. His death in 1363, relatively merciful in the opera, was far more brutal in actuality: he was poisoned at a banquet and died a slow death while his enemies gloated over his agonies.

In the opera, Verdi's commitment to the cause of a unified Italy is driven home in the Council Chamber Scene, with words by Boito, as part of the opera's 1881 revision. The Chamber seethes with hostility, the councilors are determined to declare war on Venice, scarcely heeding the Doge's reminder that Adria and Liguria had a common homeland. Petrarca's letter, to which Simon refers, is a historical fact and, in his impassioned plea, "Plebe, patrizi, popolo della feroce storia" ("Plebeians, patricians, heirs to a fierce history"), Boito includes an almost verbatim quote from a Petrarca poem: "E vo gridando: pace, e vo grandando: amor" ("I am crying out for peace, I am crying out for love").

After Boccanegra, Verdi found himself more deeply involved in political matters than ever before. He was by then won over by the astute pragmatism of Camillo Cavour (1810-1861), whose policies led to tangible results. With French support, the forces of Victor Emanuel, King of Sardinia, successfully battled the Austrians and annexed the duchies of Verdi's native Parma, Tuscany, and Modena. Signs of Viva Verdi! (Vittorio Emanuele Rêë D'Italia) made his name synonymous with patriotic aims all over Italy, while the composer personally subsidized the purchase of 172 rifles to arm Parma's National Guard against possible counterattacks.

Genoa provided the starting point for Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) to embark on a campaign that eventually reclaimed Naples and Sicily from centuries of Spanish rule. By the end of 1860, the prophecy of Petrarca and the ambition of the Risorgimento's three bickering architects &mdash Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi &mdash became a reality. With the exception of Rome and Venice, the unification was complete and Verdi, reluctantly yielding to Cavour's persistence, became a member of Italy's first parliament.

For Verdi's uncompromising patriotism, however, unification had to be total. Venice joined the union in 1866 after a plebiscite, and, as a by-product of the Franco-Prussian war, Rome was ceded to Italy in 1870, while Verdi was working on Aêda. Amonasro sings a beautiful phrase about "un popolo vinto, straziato" ("a conquered and tortured people") and Ramfis looms large as a symbol of Verdi's anti-clericalism; here, with the Risorgimento's aims achieved at last, the "political" Verdi injects himself into his music for the last time.

Three years earlier, Verdi and his devoted wife Giuseppina had set up a permanent vacation residence in Genoa. "The apartment is magnificent, and the view stupendous, and I plan to spend about 50 winters in it," he wrote in a letter. He proved almost right: Verdi's last stay in Genoa was recorded in March 1900, less than a year before his death at 88. As for that "stupendous view," he must have often thought of the heroic Simon Boccanegra as he freely breathed "l'aura beata del libero cielo" ("the blessed air of the open sky"), a joy the noble Doge enjoyed all too briefly.

George Jellinek is the former music director of radio station WQXR in New York. This article first appeared in the program of San Francisco Opera and is used here with the permission of San Francisco Opera and the author.

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