> Verdi - Simon Boccanegra [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra………….Gordon Hawkins
Jacopo Fiesco………………Vladimir Vaneev
Paolo Albiani……………….Yaron Windmüller
Pietro………………………..Martin Snell
Amelia Grimaldi…………….Nuccia Focile
Gabriele Adorno…………….Paul Charles Clarke
Amelia’s Maid………………Wendy Dawn Thompson
Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Marco Guidarni
Recorded live in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 10-12 March 2000
MORRISON MUSIC TRUST MMT 2045-46 [2CDs: 75.36+64.01]

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 than distracting.

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.

Tony Haywood

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