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The Story of 'Simon Boccanegra'

Verdi first wrote <em>Simon Boccanegra</em> in 1857, but the final version didn't take shape until 1881, when the composer was in his late 60s.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Verdi first wrote Simon Boccanegra in 1857, but the final version didn't take shape until 1881, when the composer was in his late 60s.

The opera is in three acts, with an introductory prologue, all set in the Italian city state of Genoa, in the 1300s.

The PROLOGUE opens in a square at night, where Simon agrees to be a candidate for Doge, or leader, of Genoa. He'll represent the commoners against the noblemen. A lantern is lit at the palace of a nobleman named Fiesco, who comes out of his house and confronts Boccanegra. Fiesco says that his daughter Maria has just died. Maria and Boccanegra had been lovers, but Fiesco disapproved of Boccanegra.

When Boccanegra offers his sympathies, Fiesco says there's only one way there can be peace between them: Simon must turn over the daughter he fathered with Maria, Fiesco's grandchild. Boccanegra says his daughter has mysteriously disappeared. Boccanegra enters Fiesco's home, looking for Maria. He finds her body just as, outside, the crowd joyfully announces his election as Doge.

ACT ONE begins 25 years later. Simon Boccanegra is still Doge, and he has banished the sons of a wealthy family named Grimaldi for subversive activity. The person we meet first is the young woman Amelia Grimaldi. She sings about her noble lover, Gabriele Adorno. Adorno arrives and speaks with Amelia's guardian — who is actually Fiesco, Boccanegra's lifelong enemy, now living under an assumed name. Boccanegra's advisor Pietro arrives, saying the Doge himself is returning from the hunt and would like to visit Amelia.

Adorno leaves, and Boccanegra arrives. Almost at once, Verdi's music suggests a close connection between the beautiful young woman and the aging Doge. As Amelia suspected, Simon wants her to marry his associate Paolo, and he offers to pardon her exiled brothers if she'll agree. She's grateful, but says she's in love with Adorno. Anyway, she tells him, she's not really a Grimaldi by birth. The family took her in as a foundling, after the old woman who was caring for her died. So she's actually a commoner — not an appropriate wife for Paolo.

After hearing her story, Simon produces a locket with a picture of Maria, his long-dead lover. Amelia has the same picture in her own locket — it's a picture of her mother, whom she never knew. Amelia is Simon's own lost daughter. Verdi gives the two a reunion scene that rivals even his masterpiece Rigoletto in its portrayal of love between father and daughter. Then, when Boccanegra leaves, he abruptly tells Paolo to forget about marrying Amelia. But Paolo's not going to bow out quietly. Instead, he and Pietro plot to kidnap Amelia before she can marry Adorno.

Next we hear the famous scene in the Doge's Council Chamber. As the Council deliberates, there's a commotion outside. A mob of plebeians has accosted two noblemen — Amelia's lover, Adorno, and her guardian — whom Simon still doesn't recognize as Fiesco. Simon invites the people in, to air their grievances. They say that Adorno — a nobleman — has killed a plebeian leader, and they demand his execution. Adorno says he did kill the man, but only because he had abducted Amelia, on the orders of "a powerful person." Adorno assumes the Doge himself ordered the kidnapping, and draws his sword to assassinate Boccanegra. When the Doge's men intercede, Amelia arrives, and begs Simon not to harm Adorno.

Boccanegra does decide to spare Adorno, at least until the whole kidnapping matter is straightened out. This makes Paolo even angrier than he was before. And on the surface, that seems to make it an unwise decision for the politically savvy Doge. But again, Verdi's music highlights the love of the father for his daughter, and tells us his decision was the only one possible.

And Simon also has some tricks up his sleeve. He figures it was Paolo who ordered Amelia's abduction. So he pronounces a deadly curse on the supposedly unknown kidnapper, and forces Paolo to repeat that curse. It's a brilliant ploy by Boccanegra, and a fine dramatic stroke by Verdi and Boito. The act ends as the superstitious Paolo knowingly curses himself, and is horrified at the possible consequences.

So, in ACT TWO, Paolo is in a sort of double jeopardy. He's afraid of the curse, and maybe more afraid of what the Doge will do if he finds out what's been going on. Paolo decides that his only way out is to kill Boccanegra.

Paolo knows he'll never keep his power if he's known to be the Doge's assassin. But he wants to be doubly sure of Simon's death. First, he puts poison into Simon's carafe of drinking water. Then he summons Adorno and Fiesco. Both men are being held in the palace, ostensibly as plotters against the Doge, but also for their own protection from the plebeians.

Paolo suggests that Fiesco might just want to sneak up on the Doge while he's asleep — and murder him. Fiesco refuses and goes back to his cell. Paolo then tells Adorno that Amelia is in the palace with Simon, and hints that the two are probably lovers. Adorno actually finds this plausible. He doesn't know that Simon and Amelia are father and daughter. So he confronts Amelia. She refuses to reveal the truth about her relationship with Simon, and Adorno is convinced that she has betrayed him.

Still, Amelia meets with Simon in private, on Adorno's behalf. She wants Simon to give Adorno clemency, in return for political support. Simon agrees, and Amelia goes off to find Adorno.

Alone, Simon drinks the water that Paolo has poisoned, and falls asleep. Adorno appears. He doesn't know about the deal Amelia made with the Doge. He still thinks the two are lovers, and he's intent on killing Boccanegra. Amelia stops him, and in a dramatic trio, Adorno finds out that Amelia is Simon's daughter. He begs for the Doge's forgiveness, and vows his loyalty as the second act ends. But it's too late for Simon.

As ACT THREE begins, Fiesco has been freed, as part of the Doge's deal with Adorno. And Paolo confesses that he was behind Amelia's abduction. He also tells Fiesco that he has poisoned Boccanegra.

The Doge himself then appears. He doesn't know about the poison, but it's already taking effect. Fiesco admits who he really is — the father of Simon's long dead lover, Maria. Hearing that, Simon reveals that Amelia is his and Maria's daughter — and therefore, Fiesco's granddaughter. Fiesco and Simon are reconciled, and Fiesco tearfully tells the Doge that Paolo has poisoned him.

Amelia appears with Adorno. Simon gives them his blessing, then names Adorno as his successor. With bells tolling, Simon dies.

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