Primal Passions | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Primal Passions
As Simon Boccanegra plays at Houston Grand Opera, Mary Jane Phillips examines the parent-child bond so prominent in the works of Verdi.

The theme of love between a woman and a man drives so many opera plots that it sometimes seems to define the whole genre. But other bonds can leave their marks as well. One is certainly the parent-child relationship, which figures in several important works by Giuseppe Verdi. The dark side of such an attachment is the conflict between generations. In Simon Boccanegra, however, Verdi writes about something quite pure: the unsullied love between a man and his daughter.

In the opera, Boccanegra's primary concern is Maria, his beloved child. Having lost every trace of her when she was a girl, he miraculously finds her again when she is a young woman.

Verdi began using parent-child themes as early as his first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio (1839). There, the heroine makes peace with her father, who had once disowned her, and the two wreak their vengeance on a nobleman who had seduced her.

Verdi's hugely popular Nabucco (1842) is far more complex, with its action revolving around two father-daughter plot lines. Nabucco, the king of Babylonia, has two daughters — Fenena, who is loyal to him, and Abigaille, who conspires against him. Orchestrating a coup, Abigaille overthrows Nabucco, seizes his throne, and has him thrown into prison. After she is crowned queen of Babylonia, she orders her sister's execution. Just in time, however, Nabucco escapes, gathers his old troops, saves Fenena's life and defeats Abigaille, who takes poison and dies.

Another early work, Giovanna d' Arco (1845), found the composer writing about Joan of Arc and taking advantage of a particularly cruel plot twist. Joan's father, a simple peasant, becomes convinced that she is a witch because she hears voices. Obsessed with this, he hands her over to the invading English army, but later he relents and frees her from prison so she can return to the battlefield.

Some of the intensity of the operas written after 1840 may be owed to the circumstances of Verdi's life. In 1836 he married Margherita Barezzi, his patron's daughter; soon the young couple had two children. However, their daughter died, only to be followed a few months later by their son — both toddlers at the time. Then a final blow came when Margherita fell ill and died. Verdi recalled, "[She] was struck down by encephalitis, and on 10 June 1840 a third coffin was carried from my house." These terrible losses left him a grieving, childless 26-year-old widower.

Speaking later of his situation, he said, "I was alone! Alone! ... My family was destroyed! ... My very soul was ripped apart by what happened to my family."

From that moment onward his outlook and his whole life were transformed. Not surprisingly, we find echoes of these terrible losses in his works. Indeed, he became a master at depicting awful parent-child situations, as we see in Rigoletto (1851) and Il trovatore (1853), in which a parent is somehow responsible for the death of a daughter or son. In the former, the assassin hired by Rigoletto to kill the Duke of Mantua murders his beloved daughter Gilda by mistake; in Il trovatore, the gypsy Azucena betrays her foster son, Manrico, to die at the hands of his enemy. There is even a faint echo of this in La traviata (1853): the elder Germont wrecks the lives of his son and Violetta, the woman he loves. Verdi's most powerful statement of this horrific theme, however, came with Don Carlo (1867), in which Philip II, the king of Spain, orders his own son's capture, knowing that the Inquisition will have him killed. Not until Falstaff (1893), Verdi's last opera, did the composer show a parent-child conflict that ends happily.

Verdi originally wrote Simon Boccanegra under contract to the Teatro la Fenice in Venice. Years earlier, the director of that company had introduced the composer to librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who became Verdi's trusted colleague and personal friend and is the author of the Simon Boccanegra libretto and numerous others. In many of these, he takes Verdi directly to the heart of the parent-child relationship.

Piave proved to be a major factor in Verdi's development by pouring human beings into the plots instead of loading them with stock opera characters who speak "librettese." From start to finish, Piave spoke in simple, direct language and made his characters sound as if real people were talking.

The premiere of Simon Boccanegra took place at La Fenice in Venice on March 12, 1857. In the weeks before the great event, hopes for its success ran high because the management had engaged fine singers for the season. Among them were Luigia Bendazzi, a first-ranked prima donna; Carlo Negrini (Gabriele) and Leone Giraldoni (Simon) were both popular interpreters of Verdi with numerous Verdi roles in their repertoires. The main "draw," however, was Verdi himself, who by then had won an international reputation and had his operas playing in places as far-flung as Algiers, Constantinople, Stockholm, Rio, Lima, Havana, and New York. Impresarios everywhere spoke of him as "the celebrated Maestro Verdi."

Given these favorable circumstances, the premiere of Simon Boccanegra should have been a huge success, but it was not. Part of its indifferent reception was owed to the stingy Marzi brothers, impresarios who had taken over La Fenice and had spent very little on the production. In fact, the show was such a disgrace that the ruling board of La Fenice wrote to the Marzis protesting the cheap costumes and "filthy" wigs that were "absolutely indecent."

Predictably, their shabby display was scorned by the sophisticated Venetian audience. Indeed, the opera was received so coolly that one major critic said it seemed "impossible" that people could listen to the music of such a famous composer with "apathy, indifference, and a total lack of attention."

After that first production closed, some predicted that Simon Boccanegra would never enter the repertory, although the most perceptive critics praised its beautiful score and saw hope for its future. As for Verdi, he was stung over what he called the great "fiasco," but he loved Simon Boccanegra, and he later seized a chance to revise it.

The new version of the opera had its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in March of 1881. When Verdi decided to revise it he was almost 70 and was a wealthy, revered, and almost iconic figure. He had also been spending the winters in Genoa for many years and thus knew the city, its history, its people, and its politics very well, so that experience contributed to the authenticity of this rich "Genoese" opera.

At this later stage in Verdi's life, his point of view was no longer that of the 1850s. A new, young librettist, Arrigo Boito, took the place of Piave, who had died, so the Verdi-Boito collaboration led to a version of the opera that included the best moments of the original and such impressive new material as the unique Council Chamber scene.

In it Boccanegra appears in his ceremonial robes as the Doge, the absolute ruler. He addresses his people:

"And I am crying out: Peace. And I am crying out: Love."
"E vo gridando: Pace! E vo gridando: Amor."

These stupendous lines inspired Verdi to write magnificent music for them, showing a fresh command of his art. In a word, opera simply does not get any better than this.

Mary Jane Phillips is the author of biographies on Puccini and Verdi.

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