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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Simon Boccanegra
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) – Simon Boccanegra; Barbara Frittoli (soprano) – Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra; Ildar Abdrazakov (bass) – Jacopo Fiesco/Andrea; Stefano Secco (tenor) – Gabriele Adorno; Kostas Smoriginas (baritone) – Pietro; Marco Caria (baritone) – Paolo Albiani; Eglė Šidlauskaité (mezzo) – Amelia’s Maid (Ancella); Kęstutis Alčauskis (tenor) – Captain (Capitano)
Kaunas State Choir, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, 2013
Libretto with English translations enclosed
DELOS DE3457 [65:50 + 64:05]

Simon Boccanegra is possibly the darkest and most gloomy of Verdi’s operas and it took some time before it became a repertoire work. Even today it is one of the least performed among his mature works, although a check on Operabase for a five-year period from 1 January 2011 reveals 38 different productions worldwide.

First performed in 1857 and then thoroughly revised in 1881 Simon Boccanegra is stylistically closer to Otello than to, say, Un ballo in maschera. The title character is also one of the most complex characters in all opera – a dream role for a high baritone with acting abilities. It’s worth mentioning that the first Boccanegra in the revised version was Victor Maurel, who later was the first Iago and the first Falstaff. There were topflight names by the side of Maurel at the 1881 premiere too: Édouard de Reszke was Fiesco and Gabriele was sung by Francesco Tamagno, the legendary tenore robusto whom Verdi chose for the title role in Otello six years later. Maurel was one of the truly great singing-actors, seemingly comparable to Tito Gobbi who also excelled in those three roles. Gobbi’s EMI recording of Simon Boccanegra from the mid-1950s – where Fiesco is sung by another great actor, Boris Christoff, and Maria by the heavenly Victoria de los Angeles – is rightly regarded as an unsurpassable classic. It was equalled but not surpassed – apart from sound quality – by DG’s La Scala recording from the late 1970s, conducted by Claudio Abbado with Piero Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Mirella Freni in the three central roles. There have been other recordings as well, including a somewhat earlier 1970s version, also with Cappuccilli in the title role, and the pioneering Cetra recording from 1951 with Paolo Silveri, Mario Petri and the young Antonietta Stella. The Cetra had Carlo Bergonzi at his freshest as Gabriele Adorno. I derived a lot of pleasure from that version too.

The present recording, set down less than two years ago, boasts today’s foremost Verdi baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the title role. Hvorostovsky, born in Siberia, catapulted to the star-status when he won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 1989. Although he is now a shade over fifty he has retained that initial beauty of tone and the ease of delivery. His top notes still ring out effortlessly and gloriously, just as his velvety tone in softer passages caresses the ear with undiminished freshness. Add to this his superb breath-control and his surefooted sense for musical line and we have the most beautiful reading of the role on records; I haven’t heard Thomas Hampson’s though. Whether it is also the deepest and most involved characterisation of the role is another matter. Tito Gobbi’s portrait of the Doge is hard to outdo: he is Simon, and Cappuccilli’s is also a greatly involving reading. Hvorostovsky runs him close and sings magically near the end of act I: Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo! and in particular Piango su voi. The final scene (CD 2 tr. 20) is gripping, primarily through the warmth and inwardness of his singing. Throughout this version his is a very convincing portrait of Boccanegra.

Barbara Frittoli has also had a long career but here she sometimes shows signs of wear although she still sounds to be in goodish shape. Her vibrato, which was always generous, has widened to something close to a wobble in the upper middle register. The very top rings out more or less as before although the tone has hardened and become rather squally and lacklustre. She recorded a number of Verdi arias for Erato a dozen years earlier, including also Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna and the difference was striking. Then, when she was in her mid-thirties, the voice was smooth, youthful and steady and she sang with little effort. Her later self here has several beautiful moments and there is no lack of expression but by and large she is a disappointment.

Fiesco, one of the most imposing among a row of great Verdian bass roles, is sung by Ildar Abdrazakov. His is one of those gigantic voices from Eastern Europe: a typical Slavonic timbre, a magnificent instrument, voluminous but with nuance galore. Il lacerate spirit (CD 1 tr. 3) is deeply involved. Stefano Secco’s Gabriele Adorno is stylish and elegant and he has fine lyrical qualities but he isn’t anywhere near Carreras or Bergonzi. Marco Caria’s Paolo is rather dry-sounding but expressive and Kostas Smoriginas sings Pietro with dark, dramatic voice.

Constantine Orbelian’s conducting is a bit too much laid-back and the orchestra occasionally seems undernourished but this could be the fault of the recording which is a bit variable. Simon sometimes seems unduly distant.

A first choice for a library version of Simon Boccanegra must still be Abbado’s soon 40-year-old DG-recording with La Scala forces and a uniformly excellent cast. For an even deeper characterisation of the title role Santini’s recording from the 1950s with Tito Gobbi as Boccanegra is also self-recommending. However, for the most beautiful singing of the title role Hvorostovsky should be heard. With excellent singing from the rest of the cast this is a worthy companion to the other two recordings.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Robert Farr



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