Simon Boccanegra is still something of a dark horse among Verdi’s middle period operas. Lacking the hit tunes of Rigoletto, Traviata or Trovatore, and with a convoluted plot, it’s seen as a connoisseur’s choice. That it’s still in the repertory at all is largely because Verdi revised it in 1881, as the 1857 premiere at La Fenice was, in the composer’s own words, “a fiasco”. The Verdi Festival in Parma usually includes a rarity in its programme and this year’s is a staging of that original version in a controversial new production by Valentina Carrasco

Roberta Mantegna (Amelia) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Boccanegra)
© Roberto Ricci

In most cases, composers’ revisions tend to be for the better. In 1868, Giulio Ricordi suggested revisiting Boccanegra. Verdi would not commit, but the publisher did interest him in possibly working with Arrigo Boito on Otello and cannily suggested using him as librettist of a Boccanegra revision as a test to see if the two were compatible. It was an inspired collaboration. Boito compared the original opera to a rickety table of which only one leg (the Prologue) was sound. How rickety is that first version? 

Simon Boccanegra, Act 1 finale
© Roberto Ricci

After a short prelude that Verdi later excised, a pot-pourri of the opera’s themes played punchily by the Orchestra dell'Emilia Romagna Arturo Toscanini, the Prologue remains pretty much intact. Written purely for lower male soloists and men’s chorus, it helps establish the opera’s dark tinta, burnt umber in sound. The original prelude to Act 1, which was replaced by a beautiful depiction of dawn over the Ligurian coast, is penny plain, while the orchestral accompaniment to Amelia’s “Come in quest'ora bruna” lacks the lilt and bounce of the later version. Amelia also has a perky cabaletta here, which Verdi scrapped (cabalettas were outdated by then). There are several differences in the closing acts, but the wonkiest leg Verdi and Boito fixed is the Act 1 finale. The original version, a celebration of Boccanegra’s leadership, revolves entirely around Amelia’s abduction. But the Council Chamber scene of 1881 is the revised score’s crowning glory, adding political intrigue to the Doge’s personal dramas and turning the Doge into a great statesman. 

Riccardo Zanellato (Fiesco), Adriano Gramigni (Pietro) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Simon Boccanegra)
© Roberto Ricci

Carrasco moves the action into the 20th century, drawing on Genoa’s importance as a busy port to present the action in a dockside abattoir, with slaughter as a metaphor for the cruelty in the plot. Boccanegra is reluctantly elected leader (a revolt against Fiesco as owner?) just at the moment he learns of his beloved's death. He is effectively a lamb to the slaughter. The exiled Fiesco appears to be in the guise of a gardener and Amelia tends flowers in a shipping container. The ire of one loggionista reached breaking point as the curtain went up on Act 2 to reveal huge carcasses dangling above the stage; her shouts rained down angrily for minutes into the music. The reception for the director at the curtain call was hostile, but this was far from a “Carrasco fiasco”. Her direction of the principals felt intelligent and the reconciliation between Boccangera and Fiesco was truly touching, the Doge dying as a field of wheat grows on the stage, and the locals present their harvest tribute (cute lamb, dangerous meat-cleaving company to keep).  

Piero Pretti (Gabriele), Roberta Mantegna (Amelia) and Vladimir Stoyanov (Boccanegra)
© Roberto Ricci

The performance was beautifully conducted by Riccardo Frizza who was alive to every nuance of the score. After its appearance as the tiny pit band for Trovatore in Fidenza, it was rewarding to hear the Toscanini orchestra at full complement. Stylish Verdi baritone Vladimir Stoyanov sang the title role with sensitivity, rolling out long legato lines smoothly. His acting, avoiding histrionics, gave Boccanegra dignity despite his indeterminate, non-doge rank. His arch-enemy, Fiesco, was nobly sung by bass Riccardo Zanellato, sepulchral in “Il lacerato spirito”, his lament on the death of his daughter in the Prologue. 

Piero Pretti (Gabriele) and Roberta Mantegna (Amelia)
© Roberto Ricci

As his granddaughter, Amelia, Roberta Mantegna sang with a pert soprano, a little hard-edged. She certainly had the agility for Amelia’s excitable cabaletta, “Il palpito deh frena”. Piero Pretti’s bright, compact tenor made for a terrific Gabriele Adorno, Amelia’s love interest. He never forced his voice too hard and sang a terrific “Sento avvampar nell'anima” beneath the Act 2 butchery. Baritone Devid Cecconi made a strong impression as the scheming Paolo and the Teatro Regio chorus sang rousingly to round out a musically distinguished evening.