Of course, Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) was primarily known as
the librettist of Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, “Otello,”
and “Falstaff,” as well as the revised version of “Simon
Boccanegra.” In addition, Boito wrote the libretto for
Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” However, it should be noted
that Boito was also the composer and librettist of two
operas. His first opera, “Mephistofele,” was first performed
in 1868, and then revised in 1875. This latter version has
been a mainstay of the fringe operatic repertoire ever since,
primarily as a vehicle for star basses.
Boito completed the libretto for his other opera, “Nerone,”
in 1870, and it occupied the composer off and on, for the
remainder of his life. The 1924 premiere performance was
given six years after Boito’s death at La Scala, under the
baton of Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).
The music publisher, Ricordi, initially suggested that Verdi
compose the music for “Nerone,” but due to a grudge based
upon a misunderstanding, this never happened, and the
dual responsibilities of composer/librettist fell upon Boito.
Due to a lack of confidence in his abilities and a plethora
of other commitments, Boito did not finish scoring the
five-act libretto, which was published in 1901. At the time
of his death, only four of these acts were scored, and the
orchestration was incomplete. Fortunately, Boito left a
complete vocal score, and Maestro Toscanini and
composer Vincenzo Tommasini (1878-1950) were able to
use this template to finish the orchestration.
“Nerone” is an ambitious work. Set in ancient Rome during
the time of Emperor Nero, the plot addresses the conflicts
between the forces of good and evil. Despite the fact that
the staging requirements alone have discouraged full-scale
productions, I believe that “Nerone” is a truly impressive
work. Although I neglected to do this, I would advise
listeners to read the libretto before hearing the opera.
The coloristic touches throughout this work indicate that
despite his self-doubt, Boito’s abilities as a composer were
considerable. I consider this work to be a major “discovery”
on my part, and am glad that I heard this recording.
Conductor Eve Queler has long been known for
championing lesser-known operas, and recording them in
concert form. The financial obstacles of a fully staged
production of “Nerone” fall by the wayside here,
and Queler is at the helm of a wonderful performance.
All of the singers acquitted themselves well, without
perceivable weak links, and the Hungarian State Opera
Orchestra and Hungarian Radio and Television
Chorus were excellent.
While the sound engineers produced a superb recording
of these efforts, I found it interesting that the opera was
spread over three CDs, when two discs would have easily
sufficed. The accompanying booklet had essays and
synopses in English, French, German, and Hungarian,
with an Italian-English libretto. Unfortunately, there were
no track listings throughout the libretto; however, they
were listed on pages 28 and 29 of the index.
“Nerone” was a real discovery for me, and reaffirmed my
opinion that Arrigo Boito was not only a fine librettist, but
also a composer who has been unjustly overlooked.