Verdi composed Simon Boccanegra at the height of his powers. By 1857 he had already written La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore: each of these operas had opened up new means for operatic art and was imbued with a social pathos, which invariably led to problems with the censor. Simon Boccanegra is most similar to Verdi’s early opuses – Nabucco or Attila, in which there was to be found a response to the idea of a unified Italy, the rise in national spirit and resistance to invaders. The protagonist, it is true, neither leads any warriors nor does he resist them, instead being engaged only in internal political conflicts, though their circumstances are enough to test the strength of his human dignity.
The critics were favourably disposed to Verdi’s newest opera, something that cannot be said of the public which only came to fall in love with Simon Boccanegra in the 20th century. Possibly this was down to the somewhat confusing libretto, the unusual boldness of the musical language or that Verdi had made minimal use of the expressive techniques of the bel canto style, depriving the singers of vertiginous cadenzas and arias with striking high notes and a great variety of coloraturas and fiorituras. While observing the formal rules of operatic composition, the composer utterly changed its spirit. Boccanegra, relieved of the stronger features of bel canto, paradoxically came to resemble the operas from those times that Verdi had used these techniques with great care due to his inexperience. The male protagonist does not even have a major solo aria, this being replaced by the scene with the chorus and soloists “Plebe, patrizi, popolo!” (“Plebeians! Patricians! Inheritors!”). For an opera of the mid-19th century, this was incredibly unusual, though such a decision did in fact work in favour of the image of the doge. Like anyone endowed with power, he, though he decides the destinies of others, places his own destiny, too, at the mercy of the actions of other people. When the resulting conditions are irreparably gloomy the best thing that remains for him to do is to make the right moral choice.
Andrea De Rosa’s production was brought to the Mariinsky Theatre from Italy’s Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa) and Teatro La Fenice (Venice). It combines historical costumes with a minimalist set design: the greater part of the stage is occupied by a constantly changing black wall, on which at times doors open, at others Venetian windows of the Renaissance appear, and sometimes it is stripped down bare to its lattice-like structure. The deliberate conditionality of the space allows nuances of the acting to be highlighted, focussing on the complex interrelationships between the characters. Throughout the entire opera, a video is projected onto the stage backdrop depicting with staggering beauty views of the Ligurian Sea, and this accompanies the plot and reacts to it with changes in the lighting employed. The surface of the water here acts as the horizon to which Simon Boccanegra is inwardly striving, and it is a symbol of the freedom and purity of his soul. Denis Velikzhanin