I have a soft spot for the Teatro dell’Opera. Maybe the reason is the fact that everybody speaks about La Scala when one Italian opera house must be mentioned. But no. The experience of going to the opera in Rome has nothing to do with showing off costumes and sipping expensive cocktails as in Milan: it is rather the casual experience of spotting members of the orchestra and choristers having a cigarette near the entrance on one’s way to the Enoteca Chirra for an espresso and a tramezzino. I have also had the luck of seeing good performances there – but this evening it is the first time I have seen them in an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Also, this is the first time I see them with Riccardo Muti. To be completely frank, this is the first time I’ve seen Maestro Muti conduct an opera live at the theatre. So my 9 or 10 readers must imagine that my expectations were very high. And this is the sort of thing that usually leads to some frustration.
Maestro Muti has become famous with his Toscaninian white-heat performances of Italian opera in the first place. His recording of Verdi’s Macbeth for EMI should appear in the dictionary definition of “exciting”. That is maybe why I have taken some time do adapt to this afternoon’s performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. One could feel that a great conductor was in charge only by the prominence of the orchestra in the aural picture, although one could still hear singers in perfect balance throughout. If you have to gauge the abilities of a conductor, the prelude to act I and the ensuing aria are probably one very good test: the undulating woodwind phrasing usually come off as mechanical and lifeless and the accompaniment and the singing often seem entirely unrelated. Not today: Muti expertly oiled the perilous repeated woodwind phrases with an extra serving of the often neglected string parts and the result was smoother and more gracious than I had ever heard. Yet it still lacked true spontaneity. And this sensation would pervade the whole performance – the orchestra was able to narrate the story in an almost Schubertianly detached way, but rarely seemed to be pulsating with it. Beautiful moments followed each other, but the sense that dramatic tension was building up was not really achieved. For instance, the Council Chamber scene was exemplary in power and clarity, but short in tension and emotion. Sometimes one had the impression that the conductor was trying to make things comfortable for his orchestra and that sense of abandon that make a Verdian performance really thrilling was the price for polish and finish. If this were not Muti conducting Verdi, I would have probably found it “elegant and composed”. This is Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s subtlest scores, and one could argue that this is indeed a valid approach.
In any case, a very good cast has been assembled for this afternoon. Although it was not really surprising that Barbara Frittoli would not sing today, getting to hear Eleonora Buratto proved to be more than a good surprise. It has been a while since I’ve heard such morbidezza in a soprano voice as in Ms. Buratto’s: although the voice is light in grain, it is always rich in overtones, spinning naturally to acquire slancio in exposed high notes and taking naturally to soaring mezza voce when necessary. Sometimes she made me think of the young Mirella Freni – and it was not a surprise that she was a student in the great Italian soprano’s academy in Modena for a while. A touching, sensitive and beautiful performance. Francesco Meli too proved capable of sensitive singing as Gabriele Adorno, blending capably with the prima donna’s pianissimo notes without effort. He sometimes beefs up unnecessarily his voice and the results can be emphatic and lacking naturalness – the warm tonal quality and the full-throated high notes are more than compensation. George Petean’s voluminous and warm baritone is tailor-made for the role of Boccanegra. He sang with musicianship, sense of style and commitment. By the end of the opera, he sounded just a bit tired and some high notes could be better focused, but even then the tonal quality was noble and his phrasing remained noble and expressive. As Paolo, Marco Caria sang forcefully in a dark, rich tone. Dmitry Beloselskiy’s grainy, guttural and metallic (I was trying to avoid the use the word “Slavic”*…) lacked the necessary patricianship for the role of Fiesco – and his diction is a bit cloudy.
Adrian Noble’s production is merely functional – costumes and sets are pleasant to look at – but everything seemed like empty gesturing. Some elementary faults could easily be corrected (singers too often took too much time to leave in moments when they should not be there or to get to the spotwhere they were supposed to do something).
* Reviewers tend to use the word “Slavic” as some sort of flaw, what makes little sense if one thinks of the many and many excellent Slavic singers who even sometimes do not sound “Slavic-in-the-bad-sense-given-to-this-word”. However, it is a shortcut to describe a singer with guttural/vibrant/metallic voice when he or she comes from that part of the world.