Simon Boccanegra - 1/28/11

Two thoughts entered my head while I watched tonight's performance of Simon Boccanegra. One was that it was one of the finest nights of Verdi singing I've ever experienced. The other was that it's a crying shame that last year's revival, with the novelty casting of Placido Domingo in the title role, got the HD transmission, the DVD release, and all the publicity, because this year's cast was infinitely finer.

First, a note about the opera itself. It's an opera I admire more than love. I think it's mainly because it's one of the rare Verdi operas that gets weaker both dramatically and musically as the evening progresses. The Prologue and both scenes of Act One contain some of the finest and most atmospheric music he ever wrote. The opening bars are a beautiful nod to Boccanegra's past life as a pirate, with its ocean wave-like melody. The Prologue has the wonderful aria for Fiesco, "Il lacerato spirito." Fiesco's deeply religious spirit is apparent in his dirge-like aria, that reminds me of Roman Catholic chants. But the heart of the opera is in the first scene of the first act. Amelia/Maria's cavatina "Come in quest'ora bruna" is a lovely melody, but it's only a pre-cursor to the justly famous recognitition duet between Boccanegra and Amelia. One of the most beautiful duets Verdi ever wrote, and I think every heart sighs when Boccanegra sings "Figlia" with both the ecstasy and serenity of someone who has found inner peace at last. The switch to the Council Chamber is an example of how Verdi is so able to mix public and private worlds in the same opera. I think the Council Chamber scene is also effective not so much for the drama but because Verdi is able to set a mood. The Doge is a fantasy political leader -- just, wise, intelligent, dignified, and watching him in action is like wish fulfillment.

But then ... well I wouldn't call Acts 2 and 3 disappointments, but the music isn't at the same level as the pre-intermission music, and dramatically the opera becomes rather rote in the way it checks off the plot points. Okay here is that baddie Paolo sneaking poison into the Doge's drink. (How did he get into the Doge's palace? One wonders.) Okay here is the clueless tenor who thinks that the Doge is Amelia's lover. He sings an emo aria, because it's already the second half of the opera and it's time for the tenor to finally have an aria. Boccanegra drinks the "bitter water"! Oh no! But all this is just an excuse so all the main characters (Doge, Amelia/Maria, Fiesco, Gabriele) can be reconciled and hold hands and sing Verdian kumbaya before the Doge dies his beautiful, dignified death. By the time the Doge finally died I was more than ready for him to go.

I think another major weakness with the opera is that all the characters (except for Paolo the cartoonish villain) are so freakin' dignified. Opera is dependent on over the top characters and situations, and all this goodness and morality make for a dramatically inert evening. Boccanegra actually has a rather wild past as a pirate, and he has an illegitimate child, but Verdi writes the character as so noble, so full of those long, arching musical lines, that he's ready to be beatified when he dies.

With its dramatically weak plot, Simon Boccanegra is a very singer-dependent opera, and tonight there were no real weak links. Everyone brought their A-game to the stage, and that is always a joy to see. At the center of this excellent performance was Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role. Hvorostovsky's Verdi isn't without controversy -- I've heard consistent complaints that his voice is too small for the major Verdi roles. A few years ago I heard him in Il Trovatore and he seemed to have taken the criticisms to heart. His voice sounded artificially darkened and this elegant singer resorted to barking. I was most disappointed. Well tonight he sounded absolutely wonderful. The darkness of his timbre is very appropriate for the role, as is his naturally dignified stage deportment and ability to sing long, uninterrupted lines of melody without taking a breath. He also didn't force the voice, and, as is often the case when a singer doesn't force, he sounded louder. Not in terms of actual decibels, but in terms of lovely, pure sound that the ears pick up because one wants to hear the voice. The only scene where I'd say his voice really was a tad too small was the Council Scene, where the Doge's voice has to override everyone's on stage. But overall, beautiful performance. What a joy to hear a real bass-baritone voice in Boccanegra, after hearing Domingo last year, who at this stage in his career doesn't sound like a tenor and doesn't sound like a baritone -- he just sounds like a very old singer.

Ferrucio Furlanetto was a huge improvement over last year's Fiesco, James Morris. Furlanetto gave an astounding performance as Philip in this year's revival of Don Carlo. Fiesco isn't as deep or rich of a role, but what a majestic, idiomatic performance! He doesn't have to cede anything to Cesare Siepi or Ezio Pinza or Nazzareno de Angelis - Furlanetto is golden age singing. Hard to believe he's over 60, as his voice has no unsteadiness, and he's able to really fill the auditorium with waves of sound. "Il lacerato spirito" was a highlight, as was his final reconciliation duet with Boccanegra. He also like Hvorostovsky has a natural dignity in his stage deportment that can't be taught. It just comes from within.

Barbara Frittoli was the Amelia and her placid, soothing personality and pleasant lyric soprano remind me of Gabriella Tucci. Her vibrato has loosened, and her timbre isn't the most distinctive, but the role suits her. Her voice sounded very properly angelic, but also has enough cut and bite to ride over the male voices in ensembles. She made an admirable stab at the exposed trills at the end of the Council Scene. Ramon Vargas is one of those singers that I always think looks ridiculous whenever he first steps onstage. He's portly and homely and also too affable in temperament to really pull off the role of Gabriele Adorno, who is supposed to be sort of political firebrand. Vargas looks so awkward brandishing a sword. But then he starts singing and the reservations go away. Vargas has one of the sweetest lyric tenor voices on the opera scene, and it's not a naturally big voice, but again, like Hvorostovsky, he doesn't force the voice to create a bigger sound, and by doing that, he actually creates ... a more audible sound. Adorno is a pretty thankless role though. Nicola Alaimo was Paolo and I really hope he can keep his pleasantly large, hearty baritone and doesn't start barking the way so many Italian baritone are wont to do nowadays. I also hope he diets, because he's extremely large for a young baritone.

The evening's most touching moment might have been during the curtain calls, when the entire cast pointedly applauded James Levine, who is now too weak to walk onstage to take a curtain call. The band played beautifully for Jimmy though. I knew this was going to be a great evening when I could mentally hear the ocean waves during the prelude. Not only did the orchestra sound great, they seemed to adjust for the needs of every performer, something they don't always do. For instance, whenever Vargas sang the orchestra played softly, to accompany the more slender voice.

I have to make a note about the production. Giancarlo delMonaco was the director and his directions don't really consist of more than "___ enters on stage right and ____ leaves on stage left." It doesn't really tell the story. Almost nothing is made of crucial plot points like Amelia showing Doge the portrait of her mother. Maybe when the production was new it told the story better (I do have the 1995 video and should pull it out) but now the production consists of nothing but the most basic blocking. In the last scene. as the Doge expires, hoardes of peasants all of a sudden flood the Council Chamber. How would they get access? And the floods of random people walking about onstage ruins the private quartet between Doge, Maria, Gabriele, and Fiesco. Surely a better solution would be to have an offtage chorus?

The sets by Michael Scott  are old-fashioned and ultra-realistic. It's a handsome production, but the problem with these ultra-realistic, stone-and-fake-trees productions is that my mind always starts noticing details that aren't really in-period, or just seem wrong. Simon Boccanegra is an opera with a set time and place -- 14th century Genoa. The prologue does have a vaguely medieval feel, with its gray granite set. But the statue that is at the center of the stage at the end of the prologue is "knocked down" when Boccanegra is elected Doge. Except the statue isn't really "knocked down." It seems instead to be hinged to the base, and the crowd simply pulls down the statue as one would pull down Venetian blinds. The reason for this is clear -- so a new statue doesn't have to be built for every performance -- it can just be pulled up and down. But the moment is so hokey (whoever pulls down a statue that way?) that why do it at all? And the business of the statue takes away from what is supposed to be one of the key plot points -- that as Boccanegra triumphs politically, his personal life is a disaster as he finds the body of his lover Maria. One could watch this production and hardly notice that Boccanegra's lover is dead by the time he's hailed Doge.

The statue is "knocked down" like a jack in the box

Sun-kissed Renaissance Italy =/= 14th centry Genoa

The opera then jumps 25 years, but in the production, it seems to jump about 200 years, right into Renaissance Italy. Amelia's house is a cheerful, sunny Italian villa with ivy growing on the walls and fake trees in the background. The Doge's Council is filled with wall paintings that are very much like Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and the Doge's house has some Renaissance-style paintings carved into the walls as well. If this were a more abstract, stylized production, these inconsistencies wouldn't bother me as much. But if you're going to do an ultra-realistic You Are in 1300s Genoa production, this stuff becomes more noticeable. As a side note, one of my favorite places to go in Manhattan is the Cloisters. I used to live up in Inwood and the Cloisters is built in the style of a medieval monastery. Inside were many medieval tapestries, which I always found quite beautiful. If Michael Scott wanted to go to the trouble of painting the Doge's palace with tapestries, at least make them from the right era!

Notice the very Michaelangelo paintings on the wall

Simon Boccanegra however is one of those operas that I don't think gains much from a radicalized, modern approach. But it also doesn't have much inherent drama, and thus needs carefully designed, evocative sets and more specific blocking so that it doesn't look like "stand and sing and stand and sing some more." Maybe the director for a new production, if it wanted to go for the 14th century Genoa look, could just go uptown to the Cloisters and actually look at medieval art?

Overall though it was a great night of Verdi singing at the Met, and it's a shame there were only six performances scheduled, and only three performances left. There are plenty of tickets available, get one and go!


  1. i am glad, i found your blog, as i like opera too:-) and i enjoy to find refuge from my job in it.
    i am a fan of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, so i can´t really judge how he sang this, but i liked it immensely, i listened to Boccanegra on bbc3 web because i live far from New York:-))), in fact in Europe:-)
    it is a pity that this boccanegra isnt transmitted live in hd, i enjoyed Domingo´s Boccanegra, but i think they could transmit this one too, the audience would be interested , they neednt to be afraid, there is completely different cast, so why not to give it to the audience? i am looking forward to watching Trovatore, my favourite opera, and with my favourite baritone into the bargain... (and favourite soprano:-))) )
    the plot of Boccanegra is a little funny, Fiesco doesnt know after many years, Amelia is his granddaughter, but Boccanegra knows it after a few minutes:-))))

  2. LOL I also love how 25 years pass and Amelia's been living in the same city and no one's ever said "Come to think of it she looks a lot like ..."

  3. I too am a Prologue/Act I lover, and I've been forcing myself to listen to Acts II and III the past 2 weeks. I am growing to love them.

    I love the emo aria. The trio at the end of Act II is a blast. And the final ensemble at the end of Act III is gorgeous.

    I go Tuesday. I can't wait.


  4. Yes, it needs a revamp on the stage direction front. I'm not sure it was ever devoid of directorial loose ends, particularly Fiesco addressing the citizenry at the end, which he's supposed to do from a balcony. Doesn't make much sense to have the peeps in the room. I do like the set though, regardless of whatever period inconsistencies. It makes for a lovely sound chamber.

    To be fair to Verdi & Piave (and probably Gutierrez), Paolo gets into the palace because he's effectively Chief of Staff. The plot has many dodgy elements, but that's not one of them. Meanwhile, it could have been worse -- Verdi's correspondence with Boito on ways to jazz up the plot line makes for an entertaining read.

  5. It sounds like it was a fine performance, that's very encouraging.

    I agree that it's too bad Boccanegra got an HD with last year's cast instead of this year's. but I guess it's all about star power and last year not only had Domingo, who is still about the biggest name in opera for the general public, but it had all the PR buzz attached to his taking on baritone roles. Hvor has some name recognition but not really at a very high level and so I guess the Met didn't feel there was that much to draw people into the movie theaters.

    About the production, which I saw the year it was new, it's really pretty dull. Set for the first act was sort of fake looking, the greenery in the garden looked sort of tacky to me. And there was never all that much in the way of dynamic direction. Del Monaco had , among others, Te Kanawa and Domingo (as Adorno) to work with and neither were particularly malleable at that stage of their careers.

  6. Richard, Domingo has TWO Boccanegra videos out now, one from CG and one from the Met. The one from CG has a better overall cast, but still, I don't really want to hear Domingo sing the Doge. As I said earlier he doesn't sound like a tenor and he doesn't sound like a baritone -- he now just sounds like a very old singer, with that hollow, colorless middle voice, unsteady low notes, and thinned top. Recitals might work for him, but a major Verdi baritone role in a major house? No.

    I have the 1995 Boccanegra video and watched bits of it last night. It wasn't any better back then. Chernov wasn't a good Doge either. I thought Hvor was much better, and Furlanetto was a better Fiesco.

  7. To be cynical, they call slap Domingo's name on ANYTHING and it would sell. SFO used Domingo Cyrano performances as bait to sell entire subscriptions to the 2010-11 season. They implied that the ONLY way to be sure to get a Cyrano ticket was to purchase an entire subscription with a Cyrano performance in it. I have no idea how well it worked, but I suspect they sold a lot of subscriptions.

    I watched part of the Boccanegra telecast and erased it. Domingo's voice sounds like a comprimario in that music, he simply doesn't have much weight in the lower part of his voice and it can't take any pressure. For a 70 year old man, it's in amazing shape but not suitable for singing opera.

    The only thing that interested me in the Met Boccanegra last year was Pieczonka, who after a pretty rough start, suggested the German (type) sopranos that have made a success of Amelia. Her
    part in the Council Chamber scene reminded me a bit of Rethberg with it's poise. But Domingo and Morris were inadequate. And Giordani had some good moments and some bad. Not a keeper.

  8. I happen to love a lot of operas that other people disparage because I love opera as theater and Boccanegra can be directed as good theater. Neither this production nor the one brought in for Sherrill Milnes really worked. The Margaret Webster production Rudolph Bing produced was much better in this regard.

    One thing Bing did was to send the design sketches back because he didn't see the Ligurian Sea in enough of the sets. The sea is referred to constantly in Boccanegra and heard frequently and quite beautifully in the orchestra. The sea really isn't visible anywhere in this production, capped by the seemingly hermetically sealed Council Chamber which is supposed to have windows and a balcony connecting the action within it to the crowds in the streets. This is a major miscalculation, because Boccanegra comes from the streets and its crowds, it is they who still want him, affirming that it is he who should still be Doge until they're told of his death.

    This del Monaco Boccanegra, wholly "traditional" in style, is an example of a realistic, non-regie production that disregards Verdi's obvious intentions in every way.

  9. Very nice review, My Liege.
    I am sorry that you did not get to see the new exciting voiced tenor Di Biasio. But that is where it ends, I am afraid. His acting is non-existent. Of course I will cut him some slack being his Met debut and he was obviously scared to death. He held onto eye contact with Levine for his very life. But an actor he is not and can never be. Too bad because he's got the goods.
    We also got the privilege of having Levine come onto the stage, wobbly and with a cane, but he made it, and Hvor made sure he held onto him and that he was safe.
    A very fulfilling evening at the Met.

  10. Brava! Nice review. I was at the performance also, and second you in recommending going. If I were anywhere near New York, I'd be at both remaining performances! Odd that the MET website promotes this opera with video of Domingo singing the death scene last year...another instance of lame, wrong-headed promotion, along with their decision not to record this performance or last December's PELLEAS. Both are peak experiences, not to be missed.

  11. I love this opera, but when it comes to Gabriele's emo whinng, I always think "is this tenor aria REALLY necessary? couldn't Simon have a nice aria instead before he takes a nap? or rather tries to because dumbass tenor doesn't let him?"


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