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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra’

There is something about Simon Boccanegra that makes it special among all operas by Verdi. The fact that the composer himself never really got over its unsuccessful premiere in Venice shows that he himself was fond of it the same way die-hard Verdians are. Even after Arrigo Boito’s revision for the Milanese performances in 1880, the libretto remains contrived, but still I find Amelia/Maria, her fiancé, her father and her grandfather some of the most congenial characters in the operatic repertoire. Their inconsistencies, grudges, passions are often as illogical as real life is. Most important, the fact that, in spite of all the convoluted turn of events, their family ties never let them go really far from each other. Literally: although they are hiding from each other or pretending to be someone else or simply disappeared,  the Doge can see from his window the house where Fiesco and Amelia/Maria have lived all those years. Of course, all that would be of little importance if Verdi’s music were not as inspired and expressive as it is, especially in what regards the episodes involving father and daughter. What I mean is: the creators of Simon Boccanegra give performers a lot of material to work with. You don’t need a genius director or the most spectacular cast to make it work. I am not sure if I would say the same thing of the demands made on the conductor. The opening of act I is very hard to pull out. As far as I remember, only Claudio Abbado could make something of it.

This evening, for instance conductor Henrik Nánási took a while to gain his footing. Come in quest’ora bruna, for example, sounded its most mechanical and unaffecting, but the performance slowly got momentum. The last act, in particular, found the right balance between orchestra and soloists and also in terms of ensemble. The cast, as well, took some time to warm, but after the intermission after the first act, responded to the duets and trios in a very coherent and sensitive way.

The first time I saw Simon Boccanegra was the very same Elijah Moshinski production in a video release from the Royal Opera House. It is not the most memorable staging in the world and it seems to concentrate in just telling the story without calling special attention to any scenic element. Everything is discrete to a fault, but the point seems to leave singers all the necessary leeway to do their thing. Although the cast on video was very impressive, I have to say that the acting this evening was even more convincing. And again, this has to do with the way singers responded to each other. Boccanegra’s death scene was particularly well blocked, everyone’s gestures perfectly timed without making impossible demands in terms of acting abilities,  all directorial choices very sensible. It was indeed touching.

On video, Moshinski (and Georg Solti) had Kiri Te Kanawa in her best Verdi role. Although I would not call her the definitive Amelia in terms of singing (Freni and Ricciarelli, for example, were better equipped for the part), maybe her personal story made her relate in a very special way. I write that to explain that I could not help comparing any singer in that blue dress with my memories of the video. And Hracuchi Bassenz was not really at ease in her opening aria. She would gradually gain in confidence, but I have the impression she was not at her best voice. Hers is a velvety soprano that needs an extra push to pierce through in both ends of her range – and that had a cost. By the end, she sounded a bit tired. She had to work hard for high mezza voce, and one could hear her effort to keep her pianissimo on pitch when notes were a bit longer. And they usually were. If her performance was rather unspectacular in purely vocal terms, she never showed herself less than involved and the final impression was mostly congenial. Francesco Meli is an experienced Adorno and seemed to be more at ease with softer dynamics than his soprano. However, when he had to sing forte, he could sound a little emphatic and short on legato. In any case, he is very well cast in this role and offered an almost ideal balance of ardor and sense of style. It is amazing how healthy Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice still is. At this point in his career, he cannot offer the round and extra-rich nobility of tone the role of Fiesco requires, and yet he sang reliably and expressively throughout. I leave the best for left. I had not seen Carlos Álvarez since he recovered from the health problems that kept him away from the operatic scene for a while, and I am glad to report he was in beautiful voice and that he sang with feeling, sense of line, awareness of style and commitment.

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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.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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