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Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
28 Jan 2010

Simon Boccanegra, New York

The Times used to have a music critic who seemed to feel that singing, especially in costume, didn’t count as serious music, though he reviewed opera anyway.

Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo; Amelia Grimaldi: Adrianne Pieczonka;

Above: Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


Simon Boccanegra excited his particular ire: he would waste three or four paragraphs trying to figure out the plot and then toss out the name of a singer or two. How many people do go to a Verdi opera for the sake of the plot? I hoped he was the only one — but the other night, on the bus down Broadway after this latest Met Simon, I heard a couple of opera-goers complaining that they found Simon more incomprehensible than Trovatore (I find Trovatore crystal clear, by the way), and an old friend said, “How come Fiesco, after twenty-five years in disguise, just happens to become the guardian of an orphan who just happens to be his lost granddaughter?” This is, of course, a stumbling block, what the French call, translating another Verdi opera, La force de la coïncidence. You should do what Verdi did with such absurdities: Ignore them and focus on the music. The plot is not what the opera is about — not this opera.

What Simon is about — besides the father-daughter theme (here also grandfather-granddaughter) always explosive in the operas of the childless Verdi — is color. The prologue, for instance, set in an alleyway in fourteenth-century Genoa, includes confrontations among four characters, not one of them of a higher voice than baritone. Even the offstage women’s prayers for the dead are offset by a basso Miserere. All the murky political and personal doings are shrouded in shadow, and this shadow only dissipates in Act I against the shimmering dawn-over-the-sea music of Amelia’s aria, yet even her happiness at the beauty of the scene and at finding true love is intruded upon by minor-key forebodings. The whole opera is prevailingly dark, with only the shimmer of the sea, the warmth of the glorious father-daughter duet and the occasional beacon of the one soprano voice in the great crowd scenes that end Acts I and III.

I call this Verdi’s “light-in-the-darkness” period, a series of experiments he made in tonal color by setting a single soprano to shine out over massed crowds of dark sound. Thus we have Leonora’s “Vergine degli angeli” in Forza, Oscar’s high melody in “E scherzo od e follia” in Ballo in Maschera, the Celestial Voice in Don Carlos, the priestess in Aida. The effect is to make the drama personal, to remind us that amidst the mobs carrying us along in life’s big events, the individual soul is suffering individual anguish. Leonora de Vargas isn’t just joining the monks in prayer — she has her own guilt to expiate, her own questioning of God’s purpose; Oscar is not merely apprehensive at the witch’s prophecy, he is a believer in her powers, which suddenly seem to threaten his beloved sovereign; the priestess does not merely hope for the triumph of the choral manhood of Egypt, she seems to be making a direct appeal to “immenso Ftha” for divine favor.

BOCCANEGRA_Pieczonka_as_Amelia__0829.pngAdrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi

In Simon Boccanegra, God is not the problem; politics are — to the point that Amelia’s personal problems could be overwhelmed in mob violence, here vocalized. But all politics are local, and Verdi presents the individual point of view by having her soprano trill through the dark concertato that ends Act I, her descending arpeggio of mourning riding free beside her father’s deathbed in Act III. Verdi has evoked the darkness of grim scheming and civil conflict, but Amelia’s voice reminds us of individual experience and personal loss.

My Amelias go back to Gabriela Tucci and have included Maliponte, Arroyo, Te Kanawa, Mattila, Guryakova and Gheorghiu — all superb except the last, whose voice seemed small for Verdi in a room the size of the Met. On this occasion, Amelia was sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, a handsome woman whose voice is cool, lovely, and sizable without audible effort, but her “Com’e in quest’ora bruna” was uneven, with a swoopiness whenever she leaped above the staff that was also present for the rest of Act I. In her duet with Domingo (is there a lovelier father-daughter duet in all Verdi?), she was better when leaps were not required of her, but the great trill in the concertato was mud. She warmed up in Act II, and the arpeggios that must gleam at Simon’s deathbed did so. It was not clear whether the Canadian soprano was having a difficult night or was simply miscast. The Met needs a Verdi soprano with a voice this big and beautiful, but she should be in better control of her instrument.

Plácido Domingo’s decision to take on the baritone doge’s role (not his first such exploration at the Met — he has sung Gluck’s Oreste here) was surely the reason the Met was packed, and the crowd was so unfamiliar with the opera and with the baritone color in which he sang that they failed to greet his initial entrance with intrusive applause — bravos all round for that! The applause (and flowers) at evening’s end made up for that to be sure. His performance was more than satisfactory — from a tenor-out-of-water at nearly seventy, it was a far more finished a vocal interpretation than, say, José Cura’s Stiffelio. Domingo has always been a baritonal tenor — to the frustration of those tenor-lovers who like the near-desperation certain voices make in attaining high notes. Domingo recorded bits of Rossini’s Figaro and Verdi’s Posa long ago, but Simon is one of Verdi’s signature baritone parts. There was a sense that the lower depths, the baritonal resonance, the depth and echo, were not well served, that he does not resonate there — but he was on pitch and in character, clearly enjoying his interactions with old friends like James Morris and James Levine.

BOCCANEGRA_scene_Act_III_Morris_Pieczonka_Domingo_and_Giordani_1391.pngPlácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi, Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno and James Morris as Fiesco

Marcello Giordani sang like a god in Act I and grew a little sloppy thereafter, though without the strain and pitch problems that have sometimes dogged him in Donizetti. Verdi is the right place for him.

James Morris no longer sings Wotan or Hans Sachs, but his Fiesco reminds us that in his early decades he was known for his Mozart and bel canto. No longer having great caverns of voice to draw upon, he husbanded his resources well and sang on the lighter side of this dark role, without wobble and without disgrace. Patrick Carfizzi made an appropriately histrionic Paolo, the slimy fixer of Genoa, catching the character’s inner torments and rages with a serene Verdi line. Paolo is often an apprentice Simon, as Ford is an apprentice Falstaff, and Carfizzi should be interesting when he takes up the title role.

In James Levine’s capable hands, all the parts of this subtle score interacted smoothly whether the singer was staring only at him — as Domingo usually did — or not. The music of the great duet seemed to breathe with the surf rolling into Genoa, and Verdi’s intricate games with strings and winds created a sense of symphonic mood, a pervading unease highlighted by the thundering brasses he would use again and again in the operas that followed.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s production in Michael Scott’s colorful sets does not clarify the complicated plot, beginning as it does in fourteenth-century Genoa (as Verdi desired) and then apparently lurching to seventeenth-century Venice in the Council Chamber scene for no reason except that Tintoretto on the ceiling looks pretty and nobody knows what the Genovese council chamber did look like. Peter McClintock has elided some of Del Monaco’s more hamhanded bits of direction — crowds move naturalistically, a happy change, and Fiesco no longer draws a sword to rush at Simon three times in the course of the opera; only once. Still, as he never does lay a paw on him, these madcap outbursts tend to make Fiesco look ineffectual at best. Verdi intended Fiesco to possess a dignity evidently beyond Del Monaco’s narrow imagination.

John Yohalem

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