Feb. 6 Met simulcast: Simon Boccanegra

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Placido Domingo rules Genoa, and most everything else, in Met’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’

The celebrated tenor, dressed as a Doge and disguised as a baritone, dominates the Met stage both in appearance and vocal presence

By David Abrams

“It’s good to be the king,” proclaims a pompous Louis XVI (a.k.a. Mel Brooks) in the 1981 comedy flick, History of the World, Part I. While few would argue the wisdom of Brooks’ iconic catch-phrase, the Met’s February 6 performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra suggests that it may be even better to be Plácido Domingo. On-stage or off, Domingo rules.

At 69 years of age, and with over 130 different operatic roles to his credit spanning an enterprising 42-year career, Domingo continues to dominate the headlines as our greatest living tenor, while broadening his sphere of influence as a conductor (including the Met’s production of Verdi’s Stiffelio), an arts manager (Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera) and an organizer of international vocal competitions. Domingo continues to dominate the stage as well: No other character in Saturday’s performance came even close to matching strides with his vocal prowess or acting abilities. When Domingo took his final curtain call, folks in my theater burst out into enthusiastic and spontaneous applause – for the man, not the king.

Although I consider myself a hardcore Verdi aficionado, I must admit that I have trouble warming up to Simon Boccanegra. As a product of the composer’s middle-period, this opera pales in comparison to the melodic grace and clarity of dramatic flow of his other operas dating from the 1850’s, including La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto. And then there’s the plot: a long-winded, convoluted and needlessly complicated drama that in part explains why the work flopped (with a vengeance) at its first performance, in 1857. On the other hand, there’s much beautiful music to be found in Verdi’s score, which the listener can appreciate if s/he doesn’t take the plot too seriously.

The story, set in the 14th-century seaport city of Genoa, centers upon Boccanegra (Domingo), a former corsair now-turned-legit who is being urged by the plebeians to challenge the current aristocratic government by running for the elected post of Doge (Chief Magistrate). Boccanegra reluctantly obliges, wins the election, and then spends the next 25 years trying to maintain a peaceful coexistence among the disparate political forces that threaten to unravel the fragile republic. Add to the mix Boccanegra’s ill-fated love affair and illegitimate child, and you’ve got the fodder for a Verdi opera.

Of course, the hullabaloo over the current Met production has little to do with the plot, or for that matter, Verdi. It’s all about Domingo (sound familiar?), and the venerable tenor’s decision to tackle the baritone role of Boccanegra, which is widely acknowledged as among the most taxing in baritone repertory.

Considering the preponderance of low voices in this opera (there’s only one female lead), it’s understandable that Verdi would seek greater demands from his lead singer’s higher register. Domingo’s dramatic helden-tenor already possesses some of the deeper colors of a baritone, while his natural tenor register is capable of taking the edge off the pernicious demands of the role’s upper register.

Still, it was clear throughout Saturday’s performance that Domingo lacks a good deal of the timbral intensity that defines a true baritone. What we heard, ultimately, was the voice of a tenor singing the role of a baritone – which in this opera, at least, is not at all bad. To be sure, there were times when Domingo made his arias and duets sound as if they were designed to be sung by a tenor, such as during his powerful duet with Amelia, Figlia, tal nome palpita.

Whether you agree or take issue with Domingo’s decision to tackle the role of Boccanegra, there can be little doubt that his performance was, by any measure, truly outstanding.

Domingo’s commanding onstage presence drew and maintained the listener’s attention, and his portrayal of the despondent Doge melded singer and actor into a flesh-and-blood character with whom we could empathize. He stayed in character throughout the performance and did not shy away from hitting the ground, hard, when collapsing from the effects of the poison at the end of the final act. His final word, “Maria,” carried with it the weight of Orson Wells’ celebrated declaration, “Rosebud.”

Domingo’s vocal delivery ran the gamut from thunderous fury when unraveling the details of his daughter’s kidnapping, to the more subdued eloquence of his statesmanship in imploring his councilors to mend their differences (Plebi! Patrizi!), and finally to the muted undertones of his final blessing to his daughter Amelia and her betrothed.

As Amelia (a.k.a. Maria), Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka was strong in voice throughout the performance and sang with an attractive and richly timbred vocal quality that exuded confidence. Her muscular delivery worked wonders during the dramatic Figlia, tal nome palpita, where she allowed her character to burst at the seams with joy when she discovers that Boccanegra is her father. Coupled with Verdi’s magnificent orchestral writing, her duet with Domingo proved to be the singular highpoint of this performance.

Curiously, Pieczonka did little to temper the muscle of her vocal delivery during those moments where subtlety was needed most, such as the delicate moment of solitude and reflection in the garden at the Grimaldi Palace, where she recounts her unhappy childhood during the cavatina, Come in quest’ora bruna. Pieczonka’s high register also showed signs of strain during sustained passages. While her facial expressions managed to craft a sympathetic character, Pieczonka’s tendency to squint as she sings became an annoying distraction, which under the scrutiny of TV Director Barbara Willis Sweete’s close-up camera-work often made her appear as if she had just swallowed a teaspoon of tabasco sauce.

Marcello Giordani, as the Genoa nobleman and Amelia’s fiancé, Gabriele Adorno, was in excellent vocal form Saturday, with very few reminders of his tendency to force the top of his range above the intended pitch. His bright lyric tenor, with its clean bel canto lines and smooth legato connecting his low-and-high registers, is well suited for Verdi roles, and he had no trouble soaring above the orchestral accompaniments.

Although Giordani’s acting in the first act was limited to stock facial expressions that more often than not appeared contrived, his signature second-act aria (Sento avvampar nell’anima), where he flies into a rage of jealousy over Amelia’s presumed involvement with Boccanegra, was well-acted. In the following scene, where Gabriele learns that his beloved Amelia is actually Boccanegra’s daughter, Giordani appeared genuinely sincere, repentant and dramatically convincing.

As Jacopo Fiesco (a.k.a. Andrea), James Morris began rather tentatively, with a rich and handsome bass-baritone that nevertheless routinely faded in the low register. As an actor, the 62 year-old Morris appeared less tortured than simply exhausted when delivering the Prologue’s Il lacerato spirito, where he grieves the passing of his beloved daughter Maria before cursing Boccanegra for robbing his child of her virtue. Moreover, there was a pronounced aloofness to his character’s fury in this aria that belied his cursing of the Virgin Mary for not protecting her.

Morris’ character (and voice) came alive in the final act when he began to gloat, in a fit of hateful revenge, as Paolo tells him that Boccanegra had been poisoned – only to discover soon afterwards that Marie is in fact Fiesco’s granddaughter. Morris’ poignant duet of remorse with Domingo that followed, lamenting that the peace between them had come too late, was credible and moving.

Although the printed Met HD Broadcast program listed Nicola Alaimo as the nefarious courtier, Paolo, it was in fact Stephen Gaertner (understudy to the production’s original Paolo, Patrick Carfizzi) who sang the role at the February 6 performance.

It’s interesting to note that Gaertner’s Paolo grew stronger, and more dramatically convincing, as his character grew more treacherous – beginning when Boccanegra, after learning that Amelia (a.k.a. Maria) is his long-lost daughter, abruptly tells Paolo to abandon his plans to marry the girl. Hell hath no fury like a villain in a Verdi opera, and Paolo soon orchestrates Amelia’s abduction and the fatal poisoning of the Doge. Gaertner’s baritone (the role properly calls for a bass-baritone) appeared weak and tentative in the Prologue, where he could barely be heard above the chorus. His voice blossomed however at the beginning of Act II, as if he had been saving himself for the chilling monologue, Me stresso ho maledetto.

In the smaller role of Pietro, Richard Bernstein sang with a pleasant bass-baritone rich in color, and always remained in-character (with the help of some well-crafted facial expressions) as the unctuous accomplice to Paolo. Sadly, Pietro’s motives behind his blind obedience to Paolo, as the latter plots Boccanegra’s demise, was never made clear – either by Verdi or Bernstein. Paolo turned against his long-time ally, Boccanegra, because he was scorned, but what was Pietro’s motive – other than convenience of plot?

Stage Director Peter McClintock tastefully reprised Giancarlo del Monaco’s original 1995 Met production, with visually appealing sets and costumes by Michael Scott that faithfully evoked the Italian Trecento.

Scott’s gloomy interior to Fiesco’s palace during the Prologue, abetted by Lighting Director Wayne Chouinard’s drab lighting, hints at the pervasive doom that permeates much of the story, while the handsome ivy-covered walls that adorn the Grimaldi Palace in Act I portend the only bright spots in the hearts of both Fiesco and Boccanegra: the young and innocent Amelia. Scott’s stunning adaptation of the Council Chamber in Scene 2 of this act, adorned with murals on the walls and ceiling and anchored by a magnificent throne, was breathtaking. His period costumes – a colorful assortment of early-Italian Renaissance attire – were full in color and detail, lending a measure of authenticity to the production.

Met Opera Music Director James Levine led a willing and oftentimes enthusiastic Met Opera orchestra in a detailed rendition of Verdi’s score, whose complicated writing at times seems to mirror the complexity of the plot. Levine appeared to take special delight in milking the more poignant aspects of music, favoring relaxed tempos that allowed the phrases to breathe. During his interview with Renée Fleming prior to the start of the performance, Levine admitted “I never can get enough of it [Boccanegra],” and it showed. There were some fine individual and ensemble efforts from the orchestra, such as the tutti horn section unison passage in Act III, which truly sounded as one instrument, and the extended bass clarinet solo at the end of Act I, whose lines begin drooping with each successive melodic entrance – a harbinger, perhaps, of the curse (maledetto) that will ultimately consume the Doge.

Verdi makes abundant use the chorus as a dramatic tool in Simon Boccanegra, and the Met Chorus delivered its crowd scenes at times to chilling effect, from the angry mob’s cries of death (morte) during the second scene of Act I to the hushed assembly of townspeople who echo Boccanegra’s curse (Sia maledetto!) upon the man who kidnapped his daughter.

Details Box:
What: Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Simulcast Live in HD
When: February 6, 2010
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Time: Three hours and 40 minutes hours, including two intermissions
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Cast: Plácido Domingo, Adrianne Pieczonka, Marcello Giordani, James Morris; Stephen Gaertner; Conductor: James Levine
Next simulcast: Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, March 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm ET

  6 comments for “Feb. 6 Met simulcast: Simon Boccanegra

  1. February 24, 2010 at 4:45 am

    I saw this performance, and I heartily concur with David Abrams. Domingo’s portrayal was nothing short of amazing. As a fan of Giordani’s I found this role to be one of his best. His ringing top notes, and beautiful legato were magnificent. And as a soprano, I was impressed with Pieczonka’s beautiful “Com’in Quest’Ora Bruna” which is especially difficult to sing as soon as you come onstage. James Morris was both imperious and moving, and his voice steadily improved as the performance continued. Stephen Gaertner, whom I thought was Nicola Alaimo (as stated in the program) was a very pleasant surprise. His is a lovely bass-baritone, and he was an excellent Paolo. WIth Maestro Levine conducting so lovingly,this was,to me,one of those performances that stay in the memory for a long time, and are recalled tenderly. How wonderful that so many people saw the opera in HD, all over the world. Many thanks to the Metropolitan Opera.

    Berta Calechman

  2. Virginia Scott
    February 25, 2010 at 6:05 am

    I read with great interest your review of the Feb. 6 simulcast, which motivated me to attend an “encore” showing on Feb. 24. I’m glad I went. Domingo brought a sense of gravitas, even nobility to his role with both singing and acting. The final scene was especially poignant. I liked your comparison of Boccanegra’s last word, “Maria,” with “Rosebud.” I also enjoyed Adrienne Pieczonka’s warm, full soprano and vibrant characterization of Amelia. Giordano was okay, but–weren’t a few notes just a little off?

  3. Josy McGinn
    February 27, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Copy of an e-mail I sent to Adam at UVP and to Syracuse Opera.
    Congratulations! I didn’t believe that a wonderful opera, superbly performed could be destroyed by an inane inappropriate light show, but you and your group managed to do just that.
    I have seen projection used intelligently in several operas so was excited when I heard that Syracuse Opera was using it as a cost saving measure to be able to bring us Wagner.
    Problems started with the backdrop used as a projection screen. Has anyone on the project seen a fully rigged sailing ship? That measly part of a mainsail and whatever the two tiny side panels represented didn’t hint at its power and majesty.
    Wagner’s overture describes a towering storm, you gave us Chittenango Falls in the snow. Was there no storm on lake Ontario you could have used? Even I know that there exist great shots of waves breaking over the Oswego Light house.
    I don’t want to go on listing the unsuitable and intrusive images because I can’t think of any that weren’t.
    Your work in the city is seen in passing: walking, waiting for a red light to change. Last night you had us prisoner for 3 hours straight. You needed to give us the equivalent of the great opera singers we heard. We saw the equivalent of an out of tune streetsinger.
    It is perhaps understandable that students produced this drivel but how could you or the professionals at Syracuse Opera allow it to be used?
    I can only hope that Sunday afternoon there will be a “problem” with the projection system and that the opera will go on without your work.

  4. David Abrams
    February 27, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments and insights, Josie — that ‘s what this blog cafe discussion is intended for.   To avoid confusion on the part of the reader, however, I need to state the obvious: Your comments are unrelated to the Met’s HD simulcast of “Simon Boccanegra,” but rather the Feb. 26 Syracuse Opera (non-staged) production of “The Flying Dutchman.”

    I did not review the current Syracuse Opera production, which explains why there is no proper blog entry upon which to hang your vivid observations and comment, but its inclusion here is welcome, nevertheless.  For the record, I’ve never been a fan of concert-versions of operas — as you will no doubt remember from my (now infamous) review many years ago of Fabio Mechetti’s Syracuse Symphony Orchestra unstaged version of “Tosca.”   Perhaps it’s just as well I did not review Friday’s performance…

    DA

  5. March 1, 2010 at 1:44 am

    It sounds like I should be glad that I missed the Syracuse Opera Friday night!

    Back to the original post –

    David – I like your site and I will be back. I have a feeling I’m going to learn a lot from you!

  6. Di
    June 18, 2010 at 5:09 am

    “a few notes” … I have never yet attended a Giordani performance at which he did not sing a LOT of notes flat. I keep hoping to start liking him better since he gets so much favorable press, but it isn’t just those grating off notes; I thought in BOCCANEGRA his juxtaposition with Domingo unhappily only highlighted his lack of personal appeal. I find him lacking in musicality, I wish it were otherwise. I thought the review was fair except rather harsh on poor Pieczonka, the closeups did not help her, but in the live performance, from a decent distance, she looked as lovely as she sounded, a noble match for the great Domingo.

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