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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra – Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts (1857/1881)
Vladimir Chernov, bar, (Simon Boccanegra); Kiri Te Kanawa, sop, (Maria Boccanegra/Amelia Grimaldi); Robert Lloyd, bass, (Fiesco); Placido Domingo, ten, (Gabriele); Bruno Pola, bass, (Paolo); Hao Jiang Tian, bar, (Pietro)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/James Levine
Recorded in January 1995 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York
DVD Video


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 I recall an evening in Portofino, twelve or more years ago, with an Italian colleague who – after having hosted a fine dinner – cleared the dishes, introduced me to several species of grappa, and proceeded to give me a history lesson that proved the Genoese had discovered, invented or sold absolutely everything before anybody else got there. As the evening wore on, and the level in the grappa bottle fell, the paper tablecloth was covered in scribbled maps, family trees, descriptions of voyages of discovery and proof of the fact that Genoese banking families (including my host’s own!) had funded most of the wars in Europe’s medieval history.

The image of that restaurant table returned, unbidden, in stark relief as I started to read the plot line of Simon Boccanegra, which takes place in fourteenth century Genoa. Vengeance, feuds, parental rejection, a kidnapped love child, tragic death, vile poisonings, incitement to murder foul, mistaken identity, startling truths revealed and deathbed reconciliation; this plot is as intricate as any in the genre. And yet, in many ways, it is atypical Verdi.

OK – at two and a half hours it’s about average in length. And there are some good tunes in it – albeit less well known than they deserve. But there are some significant aspects that set this opera apart. Unusually for Verdi, it opens with an aria rather than a chorus (unlike 19 of his total 26 operas), and it closes quietly, almost with a whimper, rather than a great choral explosion. Further, it is not a typically ‘Verdi tenor’ opera. The tenor in Boccanegra is relegated to only a couple of arias and – though central to much of the action, doesn’t really shine in a solo role. The star here is the eponymous hero, initially privateer and later Doge of Genoa, in what must be one of the most technically and dramatically demanding baritone roles in the entire repertoire. Finally, this is where Verdi meets Stanley Kubrick – the characterisation is intensely dark, sombre and brooding – great introspection and angst, which is reflected in the music.

As originally premiered in Venice in 1857, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Simon Boccanegra was one of Verdi’s few flops. It was a quarter century later, however, before the composer – with the aid of Arrigo Boito – revised the opera completely, with a new libretto and an entirely new Council Chamber scene. Since Verdi was at this point at the pinnacle of his artistic abilities, the opera benefits enormously from this revision (and it is the revised version which is staged here and almost everywhere else today) and deserves a better reputation than its early failure has left it with.

Perhaps the greatest complete recording on LP was the Gobbi, Christoff, de los Angeles recording issued on Capitol, but I can find no current CD issue of this, so the benchmark has to be the Cappuccilli, Freni, Ghiaurov, Carreras 1977 recording under Abbado. To compare a video presentation with a purely audio one is perhaps specious, so I will limit comparisons to saying that I don’t think the Met production comes up to the standard of the earlier one for pure performance characteristics, but that the settings and production values contribute to an overall very creditable and enjoyable production.

There are one or two instances in which the intrusion of the video camera makes evident a hiatus that would probably escape the live audience. Domingo, for example, spends a few moments transfixed like a deer in headlights waiting for the chorus in the Council Chamber to arrive at his cue and later in the second act is concentrating so hard on injecting appropriate emotion into his singing that his lurching progress across the stage takes on the character of a Quasimodo! Te Kanawa also has a few momentary lapses, but overall the performances are very fine. Of note, the tall, imposing Robert Lloyd as Fiesco demonstrates why he is justly hailed as the greatest British bass of the late twentieth century, giving a particularly powerful and stunning rendition of the opera’s only reasonably well known aria, "il lacerato spirito". But pride of place must go to Vladimir Chernov, who brings all the dark, brooding introspection of Mussorgsky’s Godunov to Verdi’s music. This is truly a stunning performance that should do much to bring this lesser known work to wider prominence.

The staging at the Metropolitan Opera is quite brilliant. The four separate sets are wonderfully constructed, the lighting evocative and the costumes impressive, despite an anachronistic tendency towards the high Renaissance rather than the mid-fourteenth century. Production values that include a live fire in the hearth, a live falcon accompanying Boccanegra’s first entry as Doge and a quite magnificent Council Chamber setting, contribute to a fine recording. And in an era in which directorial ‘artistic license’ often changes the flow of what the composer probably intended, this production is not interpretative at all, allowing the viewer to focus on the music and the characterisation as it unfolds. As a video production, this is a great example of what can (and, indeed, in my view, what should) be done – no inappropriate angles, inexplicable cutaways or interference with the performers for the sake of ‘the shot’. The sound is very good throughout and the only minor complaint I have is a lack of text in the notes, which would have added little to the cost of their production, extensive as they already are.

Overall I loved every moment of the almost two and a half hours of this recording. It appeals on many different levels from the comic to the political. Verdi cannot resist inserting immensely dramatic musical moments surrounding such phrases as "let my tomb be the altar of Italian brotherhood", scarcely twenty years after the Risorgimento. From the rounded beauty of the brief overture to the quiet, contemplative ending, Simon Boccanegra is an opera that deserves to be better known than it is and this video production is one that could easily reach a deservedly wider audience, if well promoted.

Tim Mahon

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