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Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]
29 Feb 2012

Simon Boccanegra, LA

Sometime everything seems to go right. Just as the Los Angeles Opera Company did last fall, it opened its spring season with a baritonal eponymous opera; this time, Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo; Amelia: Ana María Martínez; Jacopo Fiesco: Vitalij Kowaljow; Gabriele Adorno: Stefano Secco; Paolo Albiani: Paolo Gavanelli; Pietro: Roberto Pomakov. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Peter J. Hall. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.

Above: Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra

Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

 

The production, like the fall’s Eugene Onegin, was not only a first for the company, but happily, starring the company’s director, Plácido Domingo, an even greater artistic success; proving that baritones can be thrilling too.

sbc4185.gifVitalij Kowaljow as Fiesco

Verdi wrote Simon Boccanegra in 1857. Its libretto is based on a play by Antonio Garcia Guttiérrez, which in turn was based on the life of the Genoese plebeian, who was elected first Doge of Genoa in 1339. Verdi’s opera was not well received. However, nearly twenty-five years later the composer revised its music and used a new libretto created by Arrigo Boito. Boito, a writer and genius of another cut, had already composed Mefistofeles, his only opera. Subsequently he wrote the librettos for Verdi’s last and greatest works, Otello and Falstaff.

Simon Boccanegra’s story involves complicated personal and political intrigues. Like Verdi’s other political operas, Macbeth, for example, it is a dark work whose plot is not driven by romantic love. Five of its six major roles are for male voices. Two duets between bass and baritone are extraordinarily powerful. Like Macbeth, even the revised Simon Boccanegra has never achieved the popularity of other Verdi operas. However, it’s a favorite of mine. Its darkness comes not merely from the essentially male cast, its nasty intrigues, or its minimal romance. Musical darkness pervades the entire work from its key signatures, to its melodic lines, to its orchestration. Heartbreak and sorrow permeate the soul of Simon Boccanegra. And Verdi knew that soul intimately. Like Boccanegra, Verdi had lost a wife and daughters almost on the eve of his ascent to power and fame.

Simon Boccanegra begins with a prologue in which the major characters are introduced. Boccanegra is a young corsair, who is inveigled to accept the newly created post of Doge of Genoa by his manipulative power hungry friend, Paolo. We meet Fiesco, the father of Maria, the young woman Boccanegra loves, who has borne his daughter out of wedlock. Fiesco will forgive Boccanegra for this sin, if the corsair can produce that child. But he cannot. He tells Fiesco that little girl has disappeared. Moments later (and we are still in the prologue) just as Boccanegra discovers that Maria is dead, a joyous crowd arrives to declare him the newly elected Doge.

sbc4180.gifAna María Martínez as Amelia

The first act begins 25 years later. Now Boccanegra and his daughter, Amelia discover each other. Unhappily, Amelia is in love with a tenor named Adorno. who along with Fiesco and Paolo, each for his own reasons, have united as sworn enemies of Boccanegra. The dramatic highlight of Simon Boccanegra is the magnificent Council Chamber scene with its thundering confrontation between Boccanegra and Paolo. Later, Paolo poisons the Doge. Nevertheless, the opera concludes with just punishment and reconciliation. Paolo is executed. Boccanegra tells Fiesco that Amelia is his granddaughter, and in an extraordinarily moving duet, the two old men, Boccanegra and Fiesco are reconciled. Amelia and Adorno marry. Adorno becomes the new Doge of Genoa. And the dying Boccanegra will find his Maria in heaven. If you can get to the pre-opera talk, Maestro Conlon does a marvelous job of unraveling this sleeve of tsouris, and with music, no less!

The darkness of its preceding scenes make our introduction to Amelia, with its brief moment of joy and high notes the only truly bright moment of the work. Interestingly in Amelia’s first aria of love and longing,”Come in quest’ora bruna” sung as she awaits Adorno, Verdi harks back to the rolling oom pah pah bass of his earlier operas. James Conlon warned his audience that they would cry at the recognition scene and sure enough, I did. But I don’t at every performance of this opera. As I said, sometimes everything seems to go right. And this scene certainly did that Sunday afternoon.

The very strong cast of male singers led by Domingo made this possible. The knock on the state of 71-year old singer’s Boccanegra: that his voice is not deep enough for the role, and raspy besides, may be true, but for the performance I saw, all that was irrelevant. With a dark wig and slimming costume, he strode and sang vigorously as the young Boccanegra. As the gray haired Doge, he was a commanding presence. Domingo has always been an excellent actor, and is unsurpassed in the subtleties his voice whether as tenor or baritone, can express in dramatic roles. The Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who sang Fiesco was a joy to hear if like me you thrill to clear, legato bass singing and long held last low notes. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli and bass Robert Pomakov were equally compelling. Stefano Secco, making his LA debut as Adorno, has a bright tenor voice and happily, his Italian could be understood. Anne María Martínez, a Grammy winner for an album she recorded with Domingo, has a rich lyric voice and produced a genuine trill. Kudos for the chorus, which has a large role in the opera. Maestro James Conlon, who confessed a particular affection for this opera, kept a limpid performance rolling at a brisk tempo.

sbc6167.gifPlácido Domingo (right) as Simon Boccanegra, with Stefano Secco (left) as Gabriele Adorno

Well, maybe there were two things that weren’t so right: the lighting and the sets created originally by lighting designer Duane Schuler and Michael Yeargan, respectively, for Covent Garden. They seem to have taken the “darkness” of the opera too literally. Both the prologue and final scene were entirely too dim and shadowed. During the prologue it was sometimes difficult to know who was singing. And I found the depth of the sets troubling. Both the prologue, which takes place in a public square and the Council chamber scene, which employ large choruses, were set on comparatively shallow sets, whereas the intimate scenes: the love scene, the recognition scene and Boccanegra’s death were performed with open depths behind them.

But these are quibbles. A great opera, whether joyous or sorrowful, is foremost about music that enters one’s heart and moves it. And Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra does just that.

Estelle Gilson

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