This thoroughly gripping and superbly sung performance
formed the centrepiece of the 2000 New Zealand Festival. It has been
skilfully captured on disc, with the truthful and realistic balance
between stage and pit making it amongst the best live opera recordings
I have encountered for some time. Add to that a marvellously attentive
audience (no bronchial distractions here), applause saved just for the
ends of the acts (no tiresome interruptions after arias), and truly
world-class playing from the orchestra, and you have a real winner.
Actually, the last bit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given that
one of our finest younger conductors, James Judd, has been their Musical
Director since 1999, and has obviously whipped them into a crack ensemble.
As with many of Verdi’s best operas, Simon Boccanegra
focuses on a father-daughter relationship, and it demands acting skills
of a high order, not just great vocal ability, to be completely convincing.
The New Zealand Festival obviously pulled out the stops in getting an
internationally experienced (though not necessarily famous) cast together.
They are headed by a superb young bass-baritone, Gordon Hawkins, who
invests the character of the tragic Doge of Genoa with just the right
amount of warmth and emotional integrity. His voice is rich and dark,
and though a hint of strain is evident in places, it never detracts
from the thrill of the moment. Simon’s address to the people at the
end of the first act, ‘Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!’ (a sort of equivalent
to ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’), is a marvellous piece of political
rhetoric, and Hawkins delivers it with nobility and gravitas.
As his daughter Amelia, Nuccia Focile is just as inspired.
Her Act 1 introductory aria, Come in quest’ora bruna (Lovely
when day is early), is deeply affecting, and shows clear echoes
of Desdemona to come. Her voice is focused and firm, even when the pressure
is on, and one is never in doubt that she is fully on top of the part.
The thoroughly nasty Paolo, a baritone part, is clearly relished by
Yaron Windmüller, who enunciates in a Gobbi-like fashion; he is
particularly impressive in the extraordinary conclusion to Act 1, where
Simon forces Paolo to curse the kidnapper – i.e. himself. It is good
to hear the distinctive vocal timbre of a Russian bass, Vladimir Vaneev,
in the role of Fiesco. Ghiaurov and Christoff both enjoyed singing this
part (both also recorded it), and Vaneev’s Slavic tones are superbly
suited to the character. The weakest character out of the male leads
is Gabriele Adorno, and our own Paul Charles Clarke does as well as
anybody (including Domingo) in trying to give the part some backbone.
His thrilling Act 2 aria ‘O Inferno!…Sento avvampar nell’anima’ (Now
blazing with heat my soul’s afire) is a high point, and Clarke
is fully up to the demands of the high tessitura. Where strain does
begin to show, as a little later in this act, it almost seems in keeping
with the character’s tortured emotions, and is thus plausible rather
As mentioned above, the playing of the orchestra under
the guest Italian conductor, Marco Giudarini, is brilliantly incisive
as well as refined. The gorgeously lyrical opening of the Prologue is
delivered with rapt, uniform string tone, while the brass rasp out thrillingly
when required. A word of praise, too, for the chorus, who enjoy their
substantial contribution. Their dark mutterings at Paolo’s cursing make
the spine tingle.
The booklet is exemplary. There are two essays by Roger
Wilson, Verdi and Politics, and Verdi and Simon Boccanegra,
both illuminating. There is full text and English translation, as well
as artist profiles. Competition is severe, with Abbado’s much-lauded
70s La Scala performance now on DG Originals. However, with the frisson
of live recording and none of the drawbacks, as well as first-rate digital
sound, this set can confidently be recommended on all counts.