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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts (1857, 1881)
Simon Boccanegra - Roberto Frontali; Amelia Grimaldi - Carmen Giannattasio; Jacopo Fiesco - Giacomo Prestia; Gabriele Adorno - Giuseppe Gipali; Paolo Albiani - Marco Vratogna; Pietro - Alberto Rota Capitano dei balestrieri - Enea Scala; Ancella di Amelia - Lucia Michelazzo
Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Paolo Vero
Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Michele Mariotti
Director: Giorgio Gallione
Costume and Set Design: Guido Fiorato
Lighting Design: Daniele Naldi
Directed for TV and Video: Francesca Nesler
rec. live, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, November 2007
Synopsis, essays and subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, and Spanish.
ARTHAUS MUSIK NTSC 101 307 [140:00]
Experience Classicsonline

At first it came as a delightful surprise to see this Simon Boccanegra (libretto: Francesco Maria Piave) from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna available on DVD. In November, 2007, thirteen opera lovers from Michael Tisma’s Ovations International opera tour travelled to Teatro Municipale Valli in Emiglia Romana to see Bologna’s production of Boccanegra. Without exception, everyone considered it an emotionally gripping performance of Verdi’s pessimistic tale of spiritual disturbance and foreboding. What is evident while watching the DVD is the difference between the confident execution and polish of the Teatro Valli performance and the unfinished, yet promising rendition caught at the opera’s prima in Bologna. There is much to be said for taping a production later in the run, after it has had a few performances under its belt. Valli’s was the seventh outing for Bologna’s dedicated team where it revealed all its artistic merit.

The mandate, however, is to review the performance as it is seen and heard on Arthaus Music at its initial showing on 13 November 2007.

A behind-the-scenes look at the production reveals a confident, independent spirit in the Teatro Comunale’s approach to mounting new productions. Devoid of any outside influences, the company has produced a team of cohesive artists with a inspired point of view.

Giorgio Gallione, in his first outing in opera, has been directing Italian theater since the early 1980s. He worked well with Guido Fiorato whose set design consisted mainly of a series of marble-like walls that moved across the stage that simulated the 14th Century look of Verdi’s opera. Gallione gave his singers a natural acting style which easily fits the composer’s musical rhythms, letting their characterizations tell the story. Fiorito also designed the costumes. These featured long, elegant tunics in rich greens and reds with adornments that recalled both the wealth and the gloom of Boccanegra’s court life. Daniele Naldi’s lighting complemented Michele Mariotti’s intimate conducting style – a style that emphasized the torturous struggle between love of family and duty to one’s country that permeates so much of Verdi’s output. What is remarkable about this young conductor is how well he integrated his musical expertise with Verdi’s musical narrative.

Boccanegra has always suffered complaints about its libretto from critics and opera-goers alike. It debuted in Venice in 1857 and was revised by Verdi for Milan in 1881 with help from the composer Arrigo Boito who became Verdi’s librettist. Verdi and Boito worked diligently to give the opera a new life which translated into new music and a substantially revised libretto. Despite these ministrations many opera critics find the story’s content a far from easy one to follow.

In the prologue we meet Simone, a young corsair in love with Maria Fiesco. Her father, Jacopo, has kept her hidden for she has had an illegitimate child by Simone. Paolo, the Plebeian leader wants Simone to become Doge. Simone accepts, thinking his new position would make it easier for him to marry Maria. Jacopo’s hatred for the future leader increases when he learns that Simone’s daughter has vanished and he is deprived of the joy of having a granddaughter. After Jacopo departs, Simone enters the palace only to discover that Maria is dead. With a heavy heart, he accepts the cheers of the people as their Doge.

Act One takes place twenty-five years later when we are introduced to Simone’s daughter, who is now known as Amelia. Simone meets her and discovers the truth of their relationship in one of Verdi’s most beautiful father-daughter duets. Also, Jacopo has returned to Genoa in disguise under the name ‘Andrea’ and spends the rest of the opera detesting Simone. This continues until the end of Act Three when, as Simone is dying from poison, they reconcile their differences in one of Verdi’s best friendship duets. At the opera’s end, Simone makes Gabriele, Amelia’s intended, the new Doge.

The strong point of the opera is not its plot, but the magnificent music the mature composer invented for his revised version. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Council Chamber Scene that ends Act One.

It was Boito who convinced Verdi that this scene was necessary to show Simone as a leader for the patricians and the common people and to interject some of Verdi’s own thoughts about bringing peace to a troubled land. The composer created a complex ensemble, vivid characters and high drama in this scene. Roberto Frontali’s baritone climbs the scale, giving Simone’s lines, "Vo gridando pace, vo gridano amor" a rich, soaring thrust in a voice deep with emotion. In the scene before this one, at the end of his duet with Carmen Giannattasio as Amelia, he expresses his love for her with one word, "Figlia". Many baritones try to project this moment with a mezza voce, but few can duplicate Tito Gobbi’s vocal heartbreak. Frontali goes his own way by expressing the word with a beautiful full sound that gives Verdi’s note - an F above middle C - its full value. Also, Frontali easily makes the transition from the brash sailor in the prologue to the seasoned and reflective Doge required in the rest of the opera. The baritone’s Simone is a very good reason to purchase this DVD.

There are other valuable contributions to this production. Carmen Giannattasio makes a lovely Amelia and a good partner in father/daughter duet in Act One, Scene 1. No other opera composer paints the longing for familial love in music as poignantly as Verdi. At the duet’s end there are four measures that seem to carry the ecstasy of Simone and Amelia’s discovery into eternity. Giannattasio’s soprano starts out with cloudy overtones; by the time the duet comes, she’s warmed up.

Giacomo Prestia’s bass fills the dramatic parts of his Fiesco, especially in his two duets - one in the prologue and the other at the finale - with Frontali’s Boccanegra. The lower part of the voice, however, gets throaty, revealing his lack of sonority so necessary to the role.

Tenor Giuseppe Gipali is quite capable in handling the vocal requirements of Gabriele Adorno, even if his voice in person comes across smaller in volume than on the DVD.

The last major role is Paolo Albiani, who at first is Simone’s friend and later his betrayer. Marco Vratogna makes a strong physical and vocal presence, his lighter bass tone has no problem in projecting Paolo’s menacing moments.

Video director, Francesca Nesler easily follows Gallione’s stage demands, but the deep blue lighting that permeates the production does cover some of the distinctive greens and reds Fiorato used to represent the Plebeians and the Patricians in the Council Chamber Scene. This did not happen in the house.

Does the fact that an Italian opera company the size of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna is willing to make a DVD of one of their new productions indicate a resurgence of operatic interest in Italy? Only time will tell, but we can hope that this production bodes well for the future.

Nick del Vecchio


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