Verdi's Troubles with Simon Boccanegra

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
February 4, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — "'Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again; If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." An American educator put that in his book, "Teacher's Manual" in the 18th century. Giuseppe Verdi followed that advice with his 1857 opera, Simon Boccanegra.

The Teatro La Fenice in Venice asked Verdi to write a new opera in 1856. Three years had passed since his last production for the Teatro, La Traviata. Verdi once again partnered with librettist Francesco Maria Piave and the two set to work.

The problems began, as they so often do, with communication. Verdi was in Paris; Piave was in Venice. Verdi had supplied Piave with ridiculously detailed instructions, but with roughly 700 miles separating the two, things happened.

Verdi asked a local for help with a few scenes. Actually, he asked Guiseppe Montanelli, who was exiled in Paris. That might have been too many cooks in the kitchen, with Piave doing the bulk of the work in Venice, but it seems the distance was the largest factor in making the premiere a near total failure.

If you follow the link to The Met's website, you can see a video of Placido Domingo performing the final scene from Simon Boccanegra.

The main points of criticism stemmed from a libretto that was impossible for the audience to understand, and they weren't fond of the music either. If you premiere an opera that people don't understand with music they don't particularly care for, you're in for it.

For the first three years, Verdi made minor revisions with minor success, but the public was still displeased overall. Some twenty years passed before Verdi did a substantial overhaul of Simon Boccanegra, this time enlisting the help of librettist Arrigo Boito. Even still, Verdi declined Boito's suggestions to redo the entire opera. Boito was irritated enough with Verdi that Boito refused to put his name on the score.

The changes were substantial enough to improve Simon Boccanegra significantly in the right direction, and it's a pleasure to hear it performed in its revised form. You can hear Verdi's opera in its entirety Saturday at noon on Classical Minnesota Public Radio, brought to you live from The Metropolitan Opera.

If you follow the link to The Met's website, you can see a video of Placido Domingo performing the final scene from Simon Boccanegra.

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