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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts (vevised 1881 edition)
Simon Boccanegra, a sometime corsair and Doge of Genoa – Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi - Barbara Frittoli (soprano); Jacopo Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman - Ildar Abdrazakov (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, a Genoese gentleman in love with Maria – Stefano Secco (tenor); Paolo Albiani, a courtier – Marco Caria (baritone); Pietro, another courtier – Kostas Smoriginas (baritone)
Kaunas State Choir; Orchestra and Chorus of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 2013, Kaunas Philharmonic, Lithuania
Booklet includes full libretto with English translation, artist profiles and colour photographs
DELOS DE3457 [65.50 + 64.05]

Delos, in their promotion of this issue justifiably make much of the rarity of studio recordings of opera over the past two decades. The changing marketplace marked the end after the feast of the previous decades when several weeks or even a month could often be taken over a studio recording. This was fine whilst the rarity of a recording, or the status of the artists involved, might eventually produce a profit. However, far too often such recordings were being subsidised by the pop market. By the turn of the century the scene had changed completely with few studio recordings of opera. A decade later rarity was an over-generous description with only the likes of Opera Rara, with financial support from the Sir Peter Moores Foundation, being a notable exception.

This paucity of studio opera recordings had a big impact on the careers of many singers who, unlike predecessors, were deprived of the opportunity to lay down their interpretations for posterity. This applies, more than most to Dmitri Hvorostovsky who takes the eponymous role in this recording. He won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1989, in the final of which he sang a wonderful and amazingly long-breathed rendition of Rodrigo’s aria from Verdi’s Don Carlo. After that he recorded a couple of recital collections for Philips. However, he did not feature in any of the three early Verdi recordings that the label managed to squeeze in before the end of their project ten years later, Oberto, (Philips 454 472-2), Jerusalem (462 613-2) and Alzira (Philips 464 628-2). By then Hvorostovsky had not quite become the dominant Verdi baritone of choice at New York’s Metropolitan Opera that he has since. Whilst he has featured in a number of telecasts that have made it onto Blu-Ray and DVD, this recording fills a big gap in his CV. He takes on a major Verdi role in a studio recording of one of the composer’s most significant works. How does he do? The simple answer is very well indeed. In the past decade or so his voice has grown darker and stronger but without intruding thickness. The defining points are, to my mind, how the interpreter of Boccanegra manages two critical moments. The first there's the concluding Figlia at the end of the recognition duet in act one (CD 1, tr.13) and second, the tonal depth, expression, even ferocity of declamation Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo and the following narration in the Council Chamber Scene (CD2, trs.2,3 and 4). Both extremes are achieved by Hvorostovsky with tonal security and expression. A warning, do not look for the word Figlia in the accompanying libretto it is unaccountably missing. Elsewhere, Hvorostovsky lives up to the vocal qualities I mention to give a comprehensively satisfying interpretation.

As his daughter Amelia, Barbara Frittoli sings with rather womanly warm tone for a young girl. She suffers an odd moment of unsteadiness. Her feel for the words and innate Italianate vocal expression does much to compensate and are vital to the drama of act two as Amelia wrestles with convincing the Doge as to Adorno’s virtues and her love for him. In the latter role, Stefano Secco, a lightish pleasant Italianate lyric tenor, manages the more demanding dramatic sequences without over-forcing his voice to give an all-round convincing interpretation.

Of the lower male voices the outstanding singing comes form Ildar Abdrazakov as Fiesco, initially Boccanegra’s implacable enemy. His tonal riches, legato and expressiveness are outstanding with his singing of the recit and aria Il lacerate spirito (CD1, tr.3) a vocal highlight. This surmounts even Hvorostovsky’s contribution, significantly larger though the latter is. I cannot wait to hear him as the mentally tortured King in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Perhaps commercial success for this issue might tempt Delos.

The two important designated baritone roles of Pietro and Paolo are strongly sung by Kostas Smoriginas and Marco Caria respectively. The former represented Lithuania in the 2005 Cardiff Singer of the World whilst the latter, a young Italian, is making waves in Vienna and elsewhere. His tonal beauty and vocal heft enables him to portray the many facets of his role in a very satisfying manner. This is particularly the case as he has stand up to the Doge’s questions and then curses himself at the conclusion of the Council Chamber scene (CD2, tr.4).

On the rostrum the American pianist-conductor-composer Constantine Orbelian plays the drama of the work for all it is worth. He clips a few minutes off Abbado’s memorable performance recorded for CD in 1977 after performances at La Scala. Abbado remains the stereo benchmark (DG 415 692-2). He is less appealing in the more lyrical aspects and the introduction to act one which should evoke the lapping sea on Genoa’s shore goes for little (CD1, tr.6). The recording is somewhat resonant with the voices set behind the orchestra.

Appendix - Simon Boccanegra and its 1881 revision

During Verdi’s presence in Paris in 1855 for the production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes 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 an ideal subject 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. 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 fiasco 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 the composer had written nothing substantial since his Requiem in 1874 and no opera since Aida four years before that. His publisher, Ricordi, raised the subject of a re-write of Boccanegra. In private Verdi was seriously and secretly considering Boito’s proposals for an opera based on his beloved Shakespeare’s Othello, whilst in public he maintained that he had hung up his operatic compositional pen. However, when Ricordi told Verdi that Boito, who had provided him with a synopsis and verse suggestions for Otello, would himself revise the Boccanegra libretto, the composer agreed to undertake the task. The revised Boccanegra was a triumph at La Scala on 24 March 1881. It is in this later form that we know the opera today and which is featured on this recording.

Boito, an experienced composer as well as a librettist, made a very significant addition to the original libretto in the form of a completely new scene to end act one. Known as the Council Chamber Scene it drew from Verdi dramatic music the like of which he had hardly previously ventured, even in Aida, and very much akin to that which was to mark out his style in Otello. Eschewing static arias or choruses a seamless flow of integrated music moves the dramatic situations rapidly forward. The scene makes considerable demands on the role of Boccanegra. The success of the baritone taking the part determines the success of any recording or performance. When that strength of baritonal tone and declamation is lacking, the whole performance is blighted as can be heard in the recordings made by Placido Domingo (review) in his guise as a would-be baritone. The scene contrasts sharply in musical style with the more lyrical recognition duets including that between the Doge and his daughter — and no composer does father–daughter duets better than Verdi — and also that with Fiesco in the final act. Whilst having obvious echoes of the original, the confrontation of Boccanegra, now Doge, with Amelia, ward of his enemy Fiesco was also significantly re-worked.

The re-workings evident in the 1881 revision are dealt with in detail, including musical examples, in volume two of Budden’s seminal "The Operas of Verdi" (Cassell, 1978, pp. 244-334). He describes the work (p.334) "as remaining for the Verdian connoisseur a pearl of immeasurable price". Opera Rara has issued the recording of the 1976 BBC broadcast of the original version; true Verdi-lovers should have this in their collections (review).

Robert J Farr