Opera Daily 🎶 — An Opera by Verdi That Needs Name Tags
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Today we’re bringing back one of Verdi’s most divisive operas.
Many fans consider it among his greatest works, while others find it tedious.
The plot is not easy to follow, but you will not believe the lush beauty and phrasing Mirella Freni brings to the French-style aria that opens Act 1.
“Come in quest’ora bruna” is Amelia’s opening aria from Act 1 of the opera Simon Boccanegra by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Like Il Trovatore, the plot is complicated, with several characters appearing at different times under different names (for example, Amelia is, in reality, Maria Boccanegra, the doge’s daughter and Fiesco’s granddaughter, but neither man knows her true identity).
I love listening to Mirella Freni sing this piece. Her bright, joyful lyric soprano voice is perfect for this role, and her phrasing makes my heart sing. In contrast to many other Verdi heroines, this role requires a lyric soprano rather than a dramatic (spinto) soprano.
🎧 Listen here (4 minute listen): Soprano Mirella Freni singing “Come in quest’ora bruna” (“How in this morning light”) from Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi.
What is the context?
Amelia sits and remembers her childhood as an orphan. The sight of the moon and the sea bring back the memory of the woman who raised her. She doesn’t want to forget her past. That memory is coupled with a happier one when she thinks of her love Gabriele. You can hear a distinct lightening of mood in the score, and Verdi’s orchestration feels appropriate for a young woman in love. Her long, smooth phrases hint at her warm, sincere, and kind-hearted nature. The orchestration of the piece – slow tempo, upper strings, and woodwinds – suggests an atmosphere of tranquility and peace.
How brightly shine the stars and sea
at this dark hour!
How your shimmering light, o moon,
unites with the waves —
as if it were a loving embrace
of two chaste hearts!
Yet what memory
do the stars and sea
bring to the mind of a poor orphan girl?
A cruel, black night,
when a good woman, dying,
cried out: “Heaven protect you”.
O noble house, home
of an even nobler family,
you cannot make me forget
my former humble refuge!
In your austere splendor
love alone smiles on me…
Day is breaking, yet still I do not hear
his song of love!
The song that every day
dries the tears on my cheek,
as the dawn dries the dew on the flowers.
Despite Verdi being the king of opera at the time, the opera flopped at its 1857 premiere (for reference, Il Trovatore was 1853) but came back to life when Verdi revised the opera in 1881. In Italian, the name of the title character is Simone (three syllables, “see-MOAN-ay”), and it’s popular today, but only when there is a voice willing to sing the title role. Verdi excelled at writing for baritones (Rigoletto, Falstaff, Macbeth, Nabucco), and Boccanegra (bok-kah-NEG-rah) is one of the most rewarding for singers.
Set in 14th-century Genoa, Italy, Genoa is ruled by opposing groups of working-class and aristocrats. From the working class, Simon Boccanegra has fallen in love with Maria, the daughter of aristocrat Jacopo Fiesco, and they have a child. Fiesco has forbidden his daughter to marry someone of lower rank, and he has kept her in his palace. The baby girl (Amelia) has been taken by Boccanegra and is raised by a nurse. Twenty-five years later, Boccanegra meets an orphaned woman named Amelia Grimaldi and discovers that she is his long-lost daughter.
In addition to the “Verdi baritone” another Verdi trademark focuses on the father-daughter relationship. The duet “Orfanella il tetto umile” from Boccanegra's first act, when Simon Boccanegra realizes Amelia is his daughter, can be very emotional.
Here are some other interpretations of “Come in quest'ora bruna”:
LISTEN Anna Moffo, “Come in quest’ora bruna”, RCA Italiana Orchestra, Franco Ferrara, conductor, 1977 [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
WATCH & LISTEN Kiri Te Kanawa, “Come in quest'ora bruna”, Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus, George Solti, conductor, Covent Garden 1991
LISTEN Leyla Gencer, “Come in quest'ora bruna”, Mario Rossi, conductor, Napoli, 1958 [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
If you are looking for a solid recording of the full opera, this is a good one (Claudio Abbado, La Scala Opera House Orchestra and Chorus & Piero Cappuccilli, Mirella Freni, Gianni Raimondi, Nicolai Ghiaurov).
Questions about this opera or this post? Or another favorite interpretation? Drop your questions in the comments, and we will share more!
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we covered Dido’s aria “When I am laid in earth”, from Dido and Aeneas—Henry Purcell’s first (and only) opera.
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Arrigo Boito restructured and enhanced SIMONE for Verdi in the Council chamber scene and gave it Boitian depth. Like lightning, I saw the Abbado/Capucili/Strehler production with LaScala at the Kennedy Center. Kiri Te Kanawa made her debut as Amelia. The direction by Strehler and the sets by Ezio Frigerio were extraordinary. Abbado's recording is superb and I have never forgotten it. The Met production with no director was a muddling inert run-through at best.