This is one of those operas that Verdi revised decades after writing it, so there are two versions. The Met’s performance is of the later one, from 1881. As I understand it, the opera was revised because it was a repeated flop and everyone agreed there was something wrong with the plot. I am not exactly leaping up and down and shrieking with excitement as far as the plot is concerned even in this version, so I really do wonder what the first version was like.
Anyway. This opera is set in Genoa in the 14th century, an age of warring city-states, lute-players and painters like Giotto, who was met in cities by huge crowds of screaming fans who would sometimes faint and sometimes rush the barriers or throw their underpants at him. (This part of the history of the Renaissance is not represented in the opera.) The story is divided into a prologue and two acts, with the prologue taking place twenty-five years before the rest. I have never liked huge leaps in time either in plays or in operas; in terms of the drama, the libretti I like best tend to be ones where everything happens over a period of a day or two. But here, you get the gap in time.
The story goes like this. Genoa is split politically between the patricians and the plebians. Two members of the plebian faction, Paolo and Pietro, are conspiring to oust the aristocrats from power by engineering the selection of a plebian for the office of doge, or chief magistrate. They fix on the plebian Simon Boccanegra, an ex-corsair. Boccanegra comes wandering in at this point because his lover Maria is locked up nearby in the house of her father, Jacopo Fiesco. Fiesco has locked her up because she and Boccanegra had an illegetimate child. The whereabouts of this child, a daughter, are unknown. (Due to the patchiness of the Met’s subtitles on this disc, a person could wind up in a certain amount of confusion in the prologue as to exactly how many lost daughters Boccanegra has. For a while, it seems like there might be two. But there is only one.) Jacopo and Boccanegra have a little conversation about this and some other things – Jacopo wants the daughter, and Boccanegra says no, but since he doesn’t know where she is, it seems like it’s kind of a moot point – and while all this is going on, poor Maria snuffs it offstage from causes unknown. (Grief? Boredom? Drug problems? We do not know. But she’s a 19th century female opera character, and the secret superpower of 19th century female opera characters is that they can drop dead with a freedom and ease that puts baroque heroines to shame. Most of the time, they don’t even need an implement!)
So, Maria is dead. But the daughter is not. It emerges very early on in Act I that a young woman that everyone thinks is one Amelia Grimaldi is actually Boccanegra’s daughter, Maria Jr. This revelation leaps out with surprising ease – very early in Act I when Amelia meets Boccanegra she just basically explains “well, you seem nice: guess what! my background is very interesting!” and father and daughter are reunited. There’s also a love story. Amelia is hot for a strapping young thing named Gabriele, of whom Boccanegra approves. Finally, there is the politicking. Paolo gets mad because the doge won’t let him marry Amelia. He abducts Amelia (she escapes – somehow), raises an insurrection against Boccanegra AND – Paolo is nothing if not thorough – decides to poison him with Slow Acting Doge Poison (Just put it in a carafe of water! The bitterness of power will disguise the taste! Also comes in Wine Flavor!).
In addition, he convinces Gabriele that Boccanegra is the one who kidnapped Amelia so that he could have his way with her. Gabriele believes this because Amelia doesn’t want to explain that the doge is her dad, and so there is this long thing where Gabriele in true 19th-century tenor fashion jumps to the first available virginity-related conclusion and insists in a fit of pique that if Amelia doesn’t tell him otherwise, he is going to believe she is doing the sweaty deed with the old dude. (Eventually, she explains. Phew!)
By the end, all the familial relations have been sorted out, the villains have gotten their just deserts, the Slow Acting Doge Poison has acted, and Gabriele gets to be doge because he’s a nice-enough guy and nearly everyone else is dead. (For a few minutes earlier on, I thought that Amelia was going to pull a Gertrude with the cup of poisoned water that was on the table for her father, but fortunately she does not. This may be a moot point, though: it is entirely possible that Doge Poison doesn’t work on Heroines.)