Verdi wrote the first version of Simon Boccanegra for performance at Venice’s greatest opera house, La Fenice, in 1857, but the revised version, most generally performed nowadays, was not performed until 1881, at La Scala, Milan. In the intervening 25 years, Verdi had pondered what he judged to be too sad and dark a score, and worked with his new colleague Arrigo Boito to revise the text and the score of the entire opera. The result is a masterpiece, and while still retaining the dark, forbidding tinta of the original, has a vast range of additional colour from the orchestral as well as the vocal writing.

Simone Piazzola (Simon Boccanegra) and Giacomo Prestia (Fiesco) © Michele Crosera
Simone Piazzola (Simon Boccanegra) and Giacomo Prestia (Fiesco)
© Michele Crosera

Andrea De Rosa’s atmospheric production uses a series of landscapes projected onto a cyclorama to evoke the Gulf of Genoa and the hills surrounding the seaport whose only rival in the 14th century was Venice itself. As the Prologue opened, a black silhouette of a gothic building represented the house of the nobleman Fiesco, within whose walls lies the dying Maria Fiesco, his daughter and the mother of an illegitimate child, also called Maria, whose father is the corsair Simon Boccanegra. The stars shone fitfully through the clouds, which moved almost imperceptibly across the cyclorama, waves lapped and seabirds flew: altogether a cinematic vision, beautifully realised in Pasquale Mari’s videos.

Giacomo Prestia has the seniority of presence and voice, and the requisite bottom notes, to make a powerful and convincing Fiesco, who has the chief aria, “Il lacerato spirito” in the Prologue, and whose dark vocal colour sets the tinta for the scene. Boccanegra, sung by the burly, warrior-like Simone Piazzola with great delicacy and power, has the higher voice, a true baritone with an intensity of tone that carried the beauty of Boccanegra’s line. Piazzola is young, still in his late 20s, and his voice and stagecraft bode well for the future. Another young singer with, for me, the voice of the evening was the Korean bass Julian Kim, whose velvety tone and utter darkness of timbre made Paolo Albiani far more than the cut-out villain he can become. At the end of the Prologue, Piazzola made Boccanegra’s discovery of the dead Maria, which coincides with his acclamation as Doge of Genoa, into a moment of true pathos.

Francesca Meli (Gabriele Adorno) and Maria Agresta (Amelia Grimaldi) © Michele Crosera
Francesca Meli (Gabriele Adorno) and Maria Agresta (Amelia Grimaldi)
© Michele Crosera

Act I was played against another silhouetted palace, this time, 25 years on, the house beside the bay where Maria Boccanegra, living under the name of Amelia Grimaldi and protected at a distance by her grandfather Fiesco who now calls himself Andrea, has spent her childhood and young adulthood. Again, a finely-filmed sky framed the stage, and the rush of seabirds across the cyclorama at certain dramatic moments looked almost too well-timed to be fortuitous. Maria Agresta’s voice is already mature, although she only made her debut in 2007, and her stage presence is graceful and at the same time full of strength and fortitude. She sang her opening aria “Come in quest’ora bruna” with attention to the underlying wave-like accompaniment – it is written in 9/8 time – that responds to the early morning hour and the coastal setting. Her meeting with Gabriele, sung stylishly by Francesco Meli, set up their loving relationship – the only clear thing in the whole tangled plot – and her recognition of her father, Boccanegra, by means of a portrait miniature, was moving in the way only Verdi’s depiction of the daughter-father relationship can be. Boccanegra gets the closest approach he ever has to an aria in the great address to the people of Genoa in “Plebe! Patrizi! – Popolo” which leads to the concertato finale of the first act, and again Piazzola’s young voice was well up to the challenge of the newly-written, heavier orchestral textures of Verdi’s revision.

Simone Piazzola (Simon Boccanegra) © Michele Crosera
Simone Piazzola (Simon Boccanegra)
© Michele Crosera

The second act, in the Doge’s Palace in Genoa, used the simplest of props – a table with a glass and a flask (poison for the use of), and here Fiesco, Paolo and Pietro set up their deadly plot to assassinate the Doge. Meanwhile, Gabriele had attracted the suspicion of Boccanegra, who was responsible for his father’s death, and so while Boccanegra was already sleeping off the first effects of the poison, Gabriele came stealthily in with a dagger, only to be interrupted by Amelia. At this point the complexities of Piave’s first and Boito’s second libretto seem to have been too much even for Verdi to clarify. Enough to say that the death-scene was now inescapable, and took up the whole of the third and final act. Boccanegra met his death at sunset – the jet contrails captured by the video on the cyclorama were the only (accidental) touch of anachronism – and as the music moves from the death-rhythms of his agony to the slow, quiet conclusion at the moment of his death, Piazzola used all his strength of voice and skills as an actor to make this seem both tragic and inevitable, so that Gabriele Adorno’s election as the new Doge still managed to feel triumphant in the midst of sadness. Myung-Whun Chung’s conducting throughout the long arc of this opera – which surprisingly lasts only three hours – was idiomatic and symphonic, and brought out the best of the Fenice’s great orchestra and chorus.