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

Simon Boccanegra at the Proms

Proms audiences have a tendency to be overly enthusiastic in showing their appreciation, with an arsenal of rituals and traditions at the ready to show their praise and adulation for their idols.

Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo; Amelia: Marina Poplavskaya; Gabriele Adorno: Joseph Calleja; Jacopo Fiesco: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Paolo Albiani: Jonathan Summers; Pietro: Lukas Jakobski. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Royal Opera Chorus. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Costume Designer: Peter J. Hall. Royal Albert Hall, London. Sunday 18th July 2010.

Above: Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]


But, the ovation which greeted the conclusion of this semi-staged performance of Verdi’s dark, brooding Simon Boccanegra was wholly justified — for once the reality more than lived up to the hype.

Of course, the anticipation — with Proms managers predicting queues for Arena day tickets stretching into Hyde Park — was largely for Plácido Domingo, returning to the stage just a few months after treatment for cancer, in his new guise as a baritone.

Domingo may profess that his decision to abandon his place as one of the ‘Three Tenors’ was not merely one of expediency but driven by a life-long desire to sing one of Verdi’s greatest roles, the 14th-century Genoan patriarch, Simon Boccanegra. In fact, for some time Domingo has been uncomfortable at the upper end of his tenor range; indeed, he has of late asked conductors to transpose roles downwards. But, his voice has always been characterised by a dusky, baritonal colour, and here he seemed liberated, relishing the soaring lines of the role, while elsewhere adopting an appropriately weary tone. While dramatically this captured the complexities and contrasts of this imperfect man — a ruthless, swashbuckling pirate reluctantly recruited as leader of a warring community of aristocrats and plebeians — musically it turned the role upside down: for the low, conversational phrases sounded effortful while the tense melodic peaks projected with ease. For Domingo’s baritone is a fairly light voice, lacking a genuine heft, and some might prefer a more burnished tone, particularly in the lower register where Domingo used his chest to strengthen and reinforce the sound. However, one can overlook such matters when presented with such a convincing characterisation, for Domingo truly embodied the tragic grandeur and dignity of the careworn ruler.

A flop at its premiere in 1857 — and performed here in the revised 1881 version — Simon Boccanegra remains one of Verdi’s most convoluted plots. There are several tangled strands, characters have multiple names and identities, and it would be a fruitless endeavour to attempt to unravel the complications. However, while this performance may have been only semi-staged, there are other ways of conveying the emotional meaning of the music than busy stage action and clever directorial tricks. Domingo perfectly communicated the trauma and torment of the troubled Doge; and especially impressive was the relationship he forged with Amelia, sung by Russian soprano Maria Poplavskaya, in their tender reconciliation scenes. Poplavskaya’s opening aria was pitch-perfect and serene, and although at times her soprano lacked the necessary shimmer, she successfully conveyed both the vulnerability and feistiness of Amelia, as she stands up to her domineering father.

But this performance was not just about Domingo and the superb ensemble cast was inspired by the occasion, the company and by Verdi’s music. Singing the role of Adorno, tenor Joseph Calleja almost stole the show; Calleja has a secure Verdian technique, strong in tone and projection, subtle in dramatic nuance. His Act 2 aria was electrifyingly ardent and justly inspired the loudest applause of the night. There were rumours that Ferruccio Furlanetto might be indisposed but such fears proved unfounded, and he was a typically imposing and dignified Jacopo Fiesco, his gleaming, sonorous bass easily filling the cavernous auditorium. Bass-baritone Jonathan Summers, completing the cast as Paolo, lacked tonal brightness and stamina but was dramatically effective as the Iago-lile villain, oozing menace.

Truly at home in this repertoire, Antonio Pappano commanded the orchestra of the Royal Opera House with a blend of passionate abandon and absolute control, delighting in Verdi’s instrumental tapestry and drawing musical pictures of great feeling and finesse. The ensembles, especially the Act 2 trio and the Council Chamber scene, were particularly well-shaped. Pappano’s players rose to the occasion, producing committed and superlative playing with a genuinely Verdian tinta.

Plácido Domingo has had a long, varied and illustrious career, as tenor, conductor, artistic director (at the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera), always seeking out new musical experiences and personal challenges, and this clearly continues. In 1959, aged just 18-years-old, he auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City as a baritone, and was told by the impressed jury that he was not really a baritone and should be tackling tenor roles — so began a celebrated and distinguished career. Now things have come full circle. But one can’t help feeling that the auditioning panel was in fact correct — Domingo was and is a tenor: the overall colour and bright ‘edge’ of his voice remain those of a tenor regardless of the register. However, whether this ‘project’ is a personal indulgence or a brave experiment, it is one which is fully justified by the musical outcome. Domingo told one recent interviewer, “After Boccanegra … I will probably say Amen.” Simon Boccanegra may spend the second half of the opera melodiously dying a drawn-out death by poisoning but, fortunately, Domingo does not yet sound ready to stop.

Claire Seymour

Click here for audio clips of this performance.

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