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Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]
02 Jul 2010

Picture Perfect — Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, Royal Opera

Plácido Domingo isn’t a tenor, a baritone or even a singer. He’s a phenomenon. Dozens stood by the stage door at the Royal Opera House to greet him with bouquets.

Guiseppi Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Paolo Albiani: Jonathan Summers; Piero: Lukas Jakobski; Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo; Jacope Fiesco: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Amelia Grimaldi: Marina Poplavskaya; Gabriele Adorno: Joseph Calleja; Amelia’s maid: Louise Armit; Captain: Lee Hickenbottom. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Diuector: Elijah Moshinsky. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costumes: Peter J Hall. Lighting: John Harrison. Royal Opera House, London, 29 June 2010.

Above: Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera


The fans know he doesn’t need flowers. The flowers are symbols to thank Domingo for being who he is. He’s an institution, or as they say in Japan, a Living National Treasure.

Given Domingo’s hectic schedule and age, it’s a miracle that he sings at all. Yet the moment he appears, the atmosphere seems to ignite, though he shares the stage with luminaries like Ferruccio Furlanetto, Joseph Calleja and Marina Poplavskaya.

Domingo’s authority is all the more impressive because there aren’t any florid, crowd pleasing arias in the part. It’s not Boccanegra’s style. He’s a shrewd politician who lives on constant alert, surrounded by danger. Hence the austere vocal colour, cold steel and granite. Boccanegra reveals himself in declamation, not decoration, and in ensemble where he’s not exposed. Indeed the tension in Domingo’s voice at some points enhances his characterization of Boccanegra as a man ravaged by fruitless struggle.

Domingo was convincingly tender in the reconciliation scene with Amelia, but reached true heights later. His monologue “Ah! ch’io respiri l’aura beata del libero cielo!”was exceptional. Acting skills grow with experience, so even if a voice ages, a true artist like Domingo can bring out aspects in the character deeper than words alone. “Oh refrigerio!... la marina brezza!...”, he sings, as the strings oscillate eerily. Domingo at once portrays the old Doge, whose power brought no peace, and the heroic corsair he once was.

Antonio Pappano understands that this “breeze” is sinister, and that Boccanegra will soon be chilled by death. Pappano’s feel for the hidden depths in this opera manifested itself in the way he brought out the strange, wavering textures in the orchestration. Tragedy hangs on this opera like a shroud : there’s an implication that headstrong Adorno might one day end up as broken as Boccanegra. Yet Verdi writes with cool-headed stoicism. Sparse textures, solo melodies, intense restraint. In Act 3, the juxtaposition of wedding chorus and execution march is so destabilizing Verdi doesn’t need to overstate the horror.

The central relationship in Simon Boccanegra is between Boccanegra and Jacopo Fiesco. Patrician and plebian, old authority pitted against a new order. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Fiesco is a strong counterbalance to Domingo’s Boccanegra. Furlanetto has stage presence enough not to be intimidated by Domingo’s aura. His vocal control, too, was so vigorous that he could only be faulted for sounding like a much younger man, not Amelia’s grandfather. But the plot is a means of expressing the titanic power struggle in 14th century Genoa. Much better that Furlanetto sounds forceful and potent.

When Domingo and Furlanetto sang the reconciliation, it was profound because what has gone before has been so intense, a battle between two formidable forces.

Amelia is the pivot on which the plot turns, though the love story is secondary to the hate story that pervades the background. Marina Poplavskaya sings Amelia so assertively that her Amelia is much more than a plot device. Poplavskaya captures Amelia’s charm but the firmness in the centre of her voice indicates strong personality. A girl with such genes would hardly be a cipher.

Calleja_et_al_Boccanegra_RO.gifFrom Left To Right: Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, Marina Poplavskaya as Amelia Grimaldi, Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra and Jonathan Summers as Paolo Albiani

Joseph Calleja’s Gabriele Adorno is energetic so much the young hothead that it’s hard to imagine what he’d be when he becomes Doge. Calleja has personality in his voice, which makes it attractive.

Lukas Jakobski’s Pietro was impressive, too, since he’s still a Jette Parker Young Artist. He stands out, vocally as well as physically (he’s very tall). Jonathan Summers’s Paolo Albiani was good too.

Since this production has been revived over 100 times, it’s almost superfluous to comment, but theatre is as much part of an opera as singing. Otherwise we’d stick to concert performances.

The sets in this Simon Boccanegra, designed by Michael Yeargan are extremely beautiful, and musically intelligent, too. Chessboard marble floor — a hard foundation that adapts to changes in time and scene, like Genoa itself. It’s black and white, typically Italianate, but also evokes the black and white power struggle in the narrative. On the uprights appear words, sometimes in gold, and in Latin, like frescoes, sometimes roughly scrawled graffiti in Italian. Plebians and Patricians again. Literally, “The writing is on the wall”.

This is a very painterly production, inspired by Renaissance painting and architecture. Yet beauty alone isn’t enough on its own, as Verdi himself was to say of this opera. Fundamentally this isn’t a decorative opera, but an opera about extreme emotions, however repressed. The physical action in this production seems oddly lethargic and stilted. as if the parts are stepping out from a painting. It works, if you think of the production as a scene in a frame on a wall in a marble hall. Fortunately, the cast is so experienced that they can create their roles almost by instinct.

Domingo is a very important artist, and Simon Boccanegra is hugely significant for him. This Royal Opera House production of Simon Boccanegra will be broadcast internationally, online by BBC 2 television on Saturday 10th July at 7.30 pm London time. There will also be a BP Big Screen Live Relay on Tuesday 13th July at 7.30 pm London time at Trafalgar Square, Canary Wharf, Bradford, Bristol, Ipswich, Leicester, Manchester, Plymouth and Portsmouth. There will also be a concert performance at the BBC Proms, broadcast live, internationally, online and on demand. from 18th July.

Anne Ozorio

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