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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 1901)
Simon Boccanegra (1857; rev. 1881)
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piavi; additions by Giuseppe Montanelli; revised by Arrigo Boito
UNITEL EDITION Blu-ray 802704 [142 mins]

When it was premiered in 1857 Simon Boccanegra was not a success, and more than twenty years later Verdi, with help, thoroughly revised it, employing a new libretto and adding what is arguably one of the strongest segments in the opera, the Council Chamber scene at the end of Act I. Arrigo Boito provided the libretto revisions and the second version of the opera scored a temporary success in 1881. It faded over the next few decades, but eventually gained back some currency, though it lags in popularity behind Rigoletto and nearly all the operas that followed.

The story of Simon Boccanegra, set in 14th century Genoa but updated here to current day, is very complex with many twists and turns through its considerable palace intrigues. On a human level it's a father-daughter story, where the father, the eponymous Simon here, finds his long-missing daughter Maria (known as Amelia). She is abducted on orders from the villainous, ambitious Paolo (who was to marry her) but she escapes and later becomes betrothed and married to her lover, Gabriele Adorno. After further complications, Paolo poisons Simon, but is later condemned to death. Simon reconciles with longtime enemy Fiesco before dying. It's a dark story with an ending that would otherwise be happy were it not for the death of the title character.

In this production, as mentioned above, the story is updated to current day—well, sort of. The Prologue occurs twenty-five years before the other three acts. But since “tweeting” on smart phones is a key part of the action in the Prologue, then its events in this account can begin only after the founding of Twitter, which was in 2006. So, because the bulk of the story takes place twenty-five years later, it would seem we have a production with anachronistic woes—or one set mostly in the future. Indeed, but when a stage director updates from pre-Renaissance to modern times and retains references to the Doge of Genoa, the King of Tartary and the like, you in the audience must be willing to accept certain liberties taken in the story anyway. So, we'll overlook these details to see the larger picture.

The use of tweeting, however, is still a bit problematic though effective in some respects. In the Prologue the plentiful tweets by the populace on stage are shown in Italian on a background screen and often appear rapidly in multitudes at a time. They deal with Boccanegra becoming the new Doge of Genoa. One says, “Make Genoa great again,” though you may not notice it among the flurry of tweets (I didn't). It's an obvious reference to the Trump presidency and some interpret it as anti-Trump, citing that Genoa was quite a turbulent place in which to live after Boccanegra took power. But on the other hand Boccanegra hopes to end the enmity and divisiveness of the political factions in Genoa, and is a heroic figure in this opera—does the tweet endorse Trump then? To me, neither interpretation is correct as I believe stage director Andreas Kriegenburg is not likely engaging in partisan politics—otherwise one must concede his intent is unclear. Instead, he seems to be indicting social media and its powerful influence on life in general. That's a valid though hardly novel point to make and might justify the early focus in this opera on tweeting. That said, I think the tweeting is overdone still and does not actually add a great deal to this otherwise quite fine production.

The sets consist of marble walls and structures that stretch across the stage, and early in the opera there is a large transparent curtain that partially hides the background. After the Prologue a concert grand piano sits at the rear of center stage and on the right side there is some foliage. Midway through the First Act a stairway and second level, both with a marbled look, appear on the right side of the stage. The sets are otherwise rather barren but, to me, fit the style of this production. Lighting is fine and, as suggested earlier, the costuming is modern day in style, featuring mostly business suits.

The singing by the principals is excellent. Luca Salsi in the title role gives a most compelling performance. His voice is strong and rich throughout his range, and his dramatic skills are thoroughly impressive whenever he's on stage. His Council Chamber scene is utterly convincing, especially considering that the singing around him, including from the chorus, is simply splendid here. His number in this crucial scene, Plebe Patrizi Popolo!, shows he can balance his vocal and dramatic skills most effectively. Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka makes a very fine Amelia. Her voice is resplendent and full in the upper ranges, and nearly as impressive in the mid-range. She delivers a stunning account of her first number, Come in quest ora bruna, in Act I. Not having heard her before (that I can recall), I knew right off she is a major talent. Her Nell ora, soave che all estasi coming just before Salsi's Plebe Patrizi Popolo! is equally distinguished. Also, try the First Act duet, Figlia, a tal nome io palpito, where both Salsi and Rebeka give thrilling performances.

But the great singing doesn't end with these two: Charles Castronovo as Gabriele Adorno is another standout in this cast. His Act II Sento avvam par nell'anima is one of the high points of this performance, a real crowd-pleaser: the audience cheered enthusiastically at the end of this aria, and you likely will too. The great René Pape turns in splendid work too as an imposing Fiesco. He is thoroughly convincing in the role: to cite just one example, try his first big number, Il lacerato spirito from the Prologue. The rest of the cast is strong and I especially liked André Heyboer, who portrays a Paolo you'll love to hate.

Great as the singing is, much of the success of this performance must be credited to Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic. Gergiev's phrasing is consistently on target: his tempos, accenting, rubato and everything else all come together to impart vitality and drama to the music. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with precision and total commitment. It would be hard to imagine a better performance on the orchestral end of things. The chorus, as suggested earlier, turns in stellar work as well. The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all first-rate.

On video the competition in this opera is relatively sparse by Verdian standards. Claudio Abbado on TDK (DVD), from the Teatro Comunale in Florence with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and a good cast, is quite fine. The Peter Stein production is alright but not particularly outstanding and the performance dates to 2002, its film and sound qualities therefore not the equal of those in this Gergiev/Salzburg effort. Thus, while some regard Simon Boccanegra as caviar to the general, I think most Verdi mavens and a good many discriminating lovers of opera don't—and they will find this new Boccanegra a most rewarding addition to the catalogue.

Robert Cummings

Disc details
Luca Salsi (baritone) – Simon Boccanegra;
Marina Rebeka (soprano) – Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra; Charles Castronuovo (tenor) – Gabriele Adorno;
René Pape (bass) – Jacopo Fiesco;
André Heyboer (baritone) – Paolo Albiani;
Antonio Di Matteo (baritone) – Pietro;
Long Long (tenor) – Un capitano dei balestrieri;
Marianne Satmann (mezzo-soprano) – Un'ancella di Amelia
Vienna State Opera Chorus Konzertvereinigung; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Andreas Kriegenburg – stage director
Harald B. Thor – set designer
Tanja Hofmann – costume designer
Andreas Grüter – lighting designer
rec. live, 2019, Großes Festpielhaus, Salzburg Festival, Austria
Picture format: 1080i 16:9; Sound format: PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in stereo

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