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CD: AmazonUK
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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - melodrama in a prologue and three acts (revised version) (1881)
Simon Boccanegra, a sometime corsair and Doge of Genoa - Tito Gobbi (baritone); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi - Leyla Gencer (soprano); Jacapo Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman – Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, a Genoese gentleman in love with Maria – Mirto Picchi (tenor); Paolo Albiani, a courtier – Walter Monochesi (baritone); Pietro, another courtier – Giovanni Omodeo (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro San Carlo, Naples/Mario Rossi
rec. live, 26 December 1958. mono. ADD


Experience Classicsonline

This performance has been issue by Dynamic in association with the Istituto Discografico Italiano in tribute to the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer (1924-2008). Gencer made her Italian debut in Cavalleria Rusticana at the Arena Flagrea, Naples in 1953. She quickly established a reputation in Italy and after performances as Mme Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites in 1957 the doors of La Scala opened wide to her. She sang seventeen roles in that theatre from her extensive repertoire of seventy-two. With the major record companies already having contracted their artists, Gencer, like many other considerable singers during that period, did not get studio recording opportunities; this despite her manifest strengths. However, she is known as the ‘Queen of the Pirates’ for the number of her live performances to appear on record, particularly in the bel canto repertoire. She made a significant contribution to the renaissance of this genre well before studio recordings were made by contracted singers such as Callas, Caballé and Sutherland.

Verdi might well have empathised with Gencer about neglect in respect of his twenty-first opera, Simon Boccanegra. His first version was written for a commission from the Teatro la Fenice in Venice for the 1856-57 season. The subject was ideal for Verdi, involving both a parent-child relationship and revolutionary politics. The political aspect caused the local censor to give the composer and Piave, his librettist, a hard time despite the action being set in 14th century Genoa. The gloomy subject matter allied to Piave’s rather rambling libretto did not help audiences. At its premiere on 12 March 1857 Boccanegra was, in Verdi’s own words, ‘a greater fiasco than La Traviata’, which had also been written for La Fenice. The critics of the time wrote about the lack of easily remembered arias and melodies. That the plot included a twenty-year gap between prologue and the resumption of the plot also could not have helped. A production at Naples went better but that at La Scala in 1859 it was a bigger fiasco than the one in Venice. The composer had moved his musical idiom too far for his audiences. Verdi recognised this when he wrote ‘The music of Boccanegra is of a kind that does not make its effect immediately. It is very elaborate, written with the most exquisite craftsmanship and needs to be studied in all its details.’.

Verdi was his own sternest critic but his regard for this composition meant that although the work fell into neglect, the possibility of revision and revival remained in his mind. In 1879 he had written nothing substantial since his Requiem in 1874 and no opera since Aida five years before that. His publisher, Ricordi, raised the subject of a re-write of Boccanegra. Although in private he was seriously considering Boito’s proposals for an opera based on Shakespeare’s Otello, in public he gave the impression that he had hung up his pen. When Ricordi told Verdi that Boito, who was providing him with synopses and other suggestions for Otello, would himself revise Piave’s libretto, the composer agreed to undertake the task. The Otello project, a close secret and code-named ‘Chocolate’, was put on hold, but not forgotten. The revised Simon Boccanegra was a triumph at La Scala on 24 March 1881. It is in this later form that we know the opera today and that’s the version featured on this recording.

The story of Simon Boccanegra concerns the political conflict between the Plebeian faction and the Patricians of Genoa lead by Fiesco. Fiesco’s daughter Maria has loved the eponymous corsair and borne him a daughter. Simon wishes to make peace with Fiesco and marry Maria. Paolo Albiani and Pietro, members of the Plebeian faction, propose to nominate Simon for Doge. He refuses until persuaded with the thought that if he were Doge, Fiesco would be unable to thwart him. But it is too late: Maria has died and her daughter, in Simon’s care, has disappeared. Twenty years go by and the missing daughter is discovered as the ward of Fiesco, their relationship known to neither of them. Simon discovers the fact that Amelia is his daughter Maria. This happens after earlier promising her hand to Paolo as reward for helping him to power. His reversal of that decision sets the scene for her later abduction by Paolo.

As Doge, Simon tries to placate the parties in the new scene that Boito added (CD 1 trs. 20-23 and CD 2 tr.1). This takes place in the Council Chamber and is one of the mature Verdi’s most dramatic musical creations. Its music is very clearly a near relative of that in Otello. Its drama contrasts sharply with the first scene with its quiet E major chords. These are so evocative of the sea and flowing tides (CD 1 trs.1-2). The scene which precedes Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna (CD 1 trs.9-10) also offers contrast. These reflect Verdi’s intimate knowledge of a town where he and his wife spent most winters and owned an apartment. As well as the addition of the Council Chamber scene there are many other differences between the 1881 revision and the 1857 original. These make comparison captivating for Verdi enthusiasts. A recording of the original 1857 version is available from Opera Rara.

Leyla Gencer’s singing of her act one Come in queat’ora bruna (CD 1 tr.10) is a powerful example of her vocal prowess: Amelia sings of the beauty of the scene as she awaits her lover Gabriele Adorno. Smooth legato, perfect pitch and diction are allied with full tone and expression. These qualities and her capacity for expression and characterisation are also put to use in the more dramatic scenes as Amelia appears in the Council Chamber after her abduction (CD 1 tr.22). They are on display again later when she has to convince Adorno that her love of the Doge is pure whilst not being able to reveal their true relationship (CD 2 trs.6-9). Similarly Gencer expresses the joy of the earlier discovery of her character’s father with delicate phrases and expressive singing. Hers is a formidable interpretation to stand alongside that of De Los Angeles’s contemporaneous Rome studio recording, which has the benefit of stereo (EMI CMS 7 635513 2). It is also unblushingly in the company of Mirella Freni for Abbado on the outstanding La Scala recording made after the Strehler stage performances (DG Originals).

Tito Gobbi as the Doge is outstanding. His live performance here has that extra frisson even over his memorable interpretation on HMV. Certainly his expressive singing in the recognition duet of act one concludes with a purer mezza voce Figlia (CD 1 tr.19). His vocal dominance in the Council Chamber scene, particularly in his biting Plebi! Patrizi! Popolo (CD 1 tr.23) is formidable. It contrasts with his vocal tone and characterisation as the Doge agonises over the love of his daughter for his enemy (CD 2 tr.8) and later, as he dies, blesses them (CD 2 tr.18). Whilst on the EMI recording, Gobbi’s portrayal of the Doge is matched by Christoff’s formidable Fiesco it is less the case with Ferruccio Mazzoli. He does not have the Bulgarian’s capacity to put weight on the voice without thickening the tone. Nonetheless he does not let the side down and his Il lacerato spirito (CD 1 tr.4) is justifiably applauded. As Adorno, Mirto Picchi sings with strong open-throated and expressive tone allied to Italianate squilla (CD 2 trs.4-5). He is another of the singers around in Italy at the time who were neglected by the mainstream labels.

The sound in the Prologue is rather recessed with the orchestra coming off worst. From act one onwards the engineers seem to have got their act together and the recording balance and clarity is much better although the string tone is thin at times. The better balance allows a better appreciation of Mario Rossi’s well-paced and strongly idiomatic contribution to the proceedings. The applause, whilst regular, is not too prolonged or intrusive.

The accompanying leaflet gives no indication as to the provenance of the recording - if it was for a radio broadcast, for instance. It includes a biographical essay about Leyla Gencer, in Italian and English. The track listings should have denoted the start of the Council Chamber scene (CD 1 tr.20).

Robert J Farr




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