Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts. (Revised 1881 Edition)
Simon Boccanegra, a sometime corsair and Doge of Genoa – Placido Domingo (tenor); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi - Marina Poplavskaya (soprano); Jacapo Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman - Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, a Genoese gentleman in love with Maria – Joseph Calleja (tenor); Paolo Albiani, a courtier – Jonathan Summers (baritone); Pietro, another courtier – Lukas Jokobski (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Set Design by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Peter J Hall
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2, 5, 13 July 2010
Region free NTSC Colour. Filmed in HD 50i 16:9 widescreen. For playback on all NTSC and PAL systems worldwide.
Sound formats, LPCM Stereo. Dts 5.1 surround
Booklet essay and synopsis in English, French, German and Spanish
Subtitles for introduction and bonuses in Italian (sung language), English, German, French and Spanish
EMI CLASSICS DVD 9 178259 5 [2 DVDs: 171:00 including bonuses]
It was during Verdi’s presence in Paris in 1855 for the production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes that he accepted a commission from the Teatro la Fenice in Venice for the 1856-57 season. He decided on the subject of Simon Boccanegra, based like Il Trovatore on a play by Guttiérrez. It was ideal for Verdi, involving a parent-child relationship and revolutionary politics in which he had always involved himself in occupied Italy. Given the political background of the subject, and despite the action being set in 14th century Genoa, the censors gave Verdi and his librettist, Piave, a hard time. The composer held out and the opera was premiered on 12 March 1857. It was, in Verdi’s own words “a greater fiasco than La Traviata”, whose failure could be attributed to casting and was quickly reversed. The critics of the time wrote about the gloomy subject-matter and the lack of easily remembered arias and melodies. A production at Naples went better, but that at La Scala in 1859 was a bigger disaster than Venice. The composer had moved his musical idiom much too far for his audiences and he wrote, “The music of Boccanegra is of a kind that does not make its effect immediately. It is very elaborate, written with the most exquisite craftsmanship and needs to be studied in all its details.” Verdi’s regard for his composition, and he was his own sternest critic, meant that although the work fell into neglect, the possibility of revision and revival was never far from his mind. In 1880 he had written nothing substantial since his Requiem in 1874 and no opera since Aida ten years earlier. His publisher, Ricordi, raised the subject of a re-write of Boccanegra. Although in private he was seriously considering Boito’s proposals for an Otello opera, in public he gave the impression that he had hung up his pen. When Ricordi told Verdi that Boito, who was providing him with synopses and suggestions for Otello, would himself revise the libretto, the composer agreed to undertake the task. The secret project, code-named ‘Chocolate’, in fact the future Otello, was put on hold. The revised Simon Boccanegra was a triumph at La Scala on 24 March 1881 and it is in this later form that we know the opera today and which is featured on this recording.
Those who are conversant with Verdi’s opera, but not up to date with the goings-on in the opera world, might look askance at the casting. A tenor singing this title role? Well yes, although not many other so-called tenors would think about it. But, having more or less met every other tenorial challenge in the repertoire, around one hundred and forty roles at the last count, and recorded most of them, he, pushing seventy, has been looking around for new challenges rather than resting his vocal chords. Domingo, like Bergonzi and others, started off as a baritone and in the early nineteen-nineties recorded Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere for DG. However, there is a massive difference between the demands of that lyrical baritone role and the title role in Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s most dramatic. Although he could always lighten his tone for the likes of Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore whilst contemporaneously singing Verdi’s ultimate tenor challenge, Otello, in the heavier roles he undertook Domingo’s voice always had a baritonal hue and strength at the bottom of its range. That said, and whatever its baritonal strengths, Domingo’s voice simply cannot bring the necessary vocal heft to the big dramatic outburst in the Council Chamber scene when Boccanegra seeks to dominate the assembled crowd as he sings Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo (Disc 1 CH.19). Likewise when Boccanegra then circles and causes Paolo to curse Amelia’s abductor, in fact himself (CH.20). This latter, in particular, should send a tingle of fear down ones spine and, at least vocally, it does not although with Domingo’s acting it has its own similar effect. But here is also the paradox in his performance. As an acted portrayal Domingo’s Boccanegra is among the finest on record despite his not have the sheer vocal heft and baritonal depth that Verdi envisaged. Doubtless this owes much to his singing of the role in Berlin, Milan and New York before arriving to sing in London. Add his normal meticulous preparation for any role, and particularly a new one, and the outcome is reflected in his assumption. Domingo conveys the totality of the character in his demeanour and acting and also vocally in the many more lyric pages of the score. Overall, and putting aside the issue of baritone or tenor, Domingo gives a penetrating and convincing interpretation of one of the great Verdi roles.
Among the most lyric parts of the role of Boccanegra are in the two recognition duets: that between the Doge and his daughter, and no composer does father – daughter duets better than Verdi (Disc 1 CH.13), and that with Fiesco in the final act (Disc 2 CH.14). Verdi used to spend every winter in Genoa and in this production would hardly recognise the venue that is so beautifully characterised in the music of the prelude to Act One and Amelia’s aria that follows (Disc 1 CHs.8-9). The rather large spaces militate against the poignant intimacy of the first of those duets and where the two realise their relationship. In the second duet with his daughter in act two, when Amelia pleads for clemency for Adorno, a sworn enemy of Boccanegra, Domingo is a drawback although, as he melts before her pleas, the lyricism becomes dominant. As Amelia, Marina Poplavskaya, Elisabetta in the recently issued DVD of the 2008 performances of Don Carlo (see review), is an appealing stage presence, good actress and secure vocalist. If she doesn’t match Kiri Te Kanawa, who I saw in an earlier production in the early 1970s and where the sea was more appropriately present in the prelude to Act One, few others have done so since. In those performances I was lucky enough to see the non-pareil Boris Christoff as Fiesco, the only Verdi role apart from Philip in Visconti’s Don Carlo in which the great Bulgarian was cast at Covent Garden (see review), and also Ruggero Raimondi. On this occasion Ferruccio Furlanetto matches neither of them, nor is he secure vocally in the prologue aria Il lacerato spirito (Disc 1 CH.4) as he was as Philip in the 2008 Don Carlo recording. He does improve in sonority and steadiness and is more impressive in Act Two as he faces the evil Paolo (Disc 2 CH.3) and in the confrontation and reconciliation with the dying Boccanegra in the final act (Disc 2 CHs. 11-18). As Amelia’s lover, Gabriele Adorno, Joseph Calleja sings with virile expressive lyric tenor tone. His rather chunky appearance militates against the portrayal of the ideal ardent lover. Jonathan Summers as the scheming and lusting Paolo, who poisons Simon, rather over-eggs the cake with an excess of eye-bulging to go with his rather dry tone.
The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra under Antonio Pappano deservedly share the limelight with Domingo, the conductor seeming to have a natural flair for Verdi’s drama with a fine balance between the lyric and more dramatic parts.
The accompanying leaflet has an essay by Anthony Alabaster and a synopsis in English, French and German. The essay titled Citizen Verdi, seeks to draw a link between the composer’s views and involvement in Italian politics and the influence on various operas, particularly this one. Although informative, the space might have been better used for the majority of purchasers by the inclusion of a Chapter Listing and Timings; their absence is, I suggest, a disgrace!; ships and tar come to mind. For readers’ information these are as follows: - Disc 1. Prologue (CHs.2-6); Act One Scene One (Chs.8-15); Act One Scene 2, The Council Chamber scene (CHs. 17-20). Disc 2. Act Two (CHs.2-9); Act Three (CHs.11-18). In between the acts and scenes there are brief behind-curtain views and comments by Pappano. A more extensive bonus of two titles, Working with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky are contained on Disc 1 (CH.7): nearly four minutes and six respectively. The advertising blurb says there is an additional audio function that features introductions to each of the opera's scenes (in English with subtitles); it escaped my somewhat irritated search unless they mean the brief interval visits behind the scenes I refer to above.
Robert J Farr
Forget that Verdi wrote the title role for a baritone and enjoy Domingo’s penetrating acted assumption of the role despite the compromises this involves.