Placido Domingo trumps cast, Verdi in the Met’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’
[Editor’s note: CNY Café Momus is pleased to have the opportunity to provide two reviews of separate performances of the Met’s ‘Simon Boccanegra:’ the Feb. 6 HD simulcast by David Abrams (preceding this review) and the present one by David Rubin, who attended the Jan. 29 performance at Lincoln Center]
Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra is hard to like. Perhaps after repeated hearings it begins to show its charms. But it lacks the great melodies in Aida, Traviata, Ballo, and Rigoletto, the great duets in Trovatore, and the dramatic tension in Don Carlo and Otello.
Perhaps its unusual compositional history is to blame. The piece was a failure when it premiered in 1857. Verdi revised it in 1881 with the help of librettist Arrigo Boito, who worked so well with him on Otello and Falstaff. Boito and Verdi added what is arguably the most effective scene in the opera both musically and dramatically: the council chamber scene in which Boccanegra confronts the kidnapper of his daughter and tries to be a peacemaker. Had Verdi written the entire opera in 1881 with Boito as librettist, it might be a masterpiece. But as it is, Boccanegra is a dark, sluggish, angry work with a ludicrous plot that would come to a halt if either the title character or his long-lost daughter Amelia/Maria offered a crucial fact or took some obvious action at the right time. They don’t, leaving the audience to ponder what fools they both are.
>Verdi’s musical fingerprints are, nevertheless, all over the score. One can hear flashes of the Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlo; the chorus in Otello; the narratives in Trovatore. Those sections bring smiles of recognition and musical pleasure. We are on familiar ground with the master. But most of the opera keeps reminding one that Verdi did it much better in many of his other works.
So, why mount it? In the case of the Met in 2010, it was to showcase the great tenor Placido Domingo as he assumed the title role, singing as a baritone. That by itself guaranteed ticket sales and great anticipation among opera lovers (Domingo sang the tenor role of Gabriele Adorno, one of opera’s great hotheads, in this same production, which premiered in 1995).
In any event, Domingo more than pulled it off and justified completely the Met’s willingness to accommodate him. At the top of the range, the voice was clearly Domingo’s. But nearer the bottom, the voice sounded like some other fine Verdi baritone, one not having appeared before on the Met stage. He handled the notes with ease. While the bottom was not quite as rich as one might like, there was no grinding of gears as he moved from register to register. He acted with conviction, clearly relishing the chance to embrace the father-daughter relationship at the center of the opera. His death scene was both touching and convincing. He thundered in the council chamber scene. He was so haggard and bent by the end that one could see him next tackling the part of Rigoletto.
The rest of the cast was not nearly up to Domingo’s standard, but that’s a high standard. As his rival Fiesco, veteran James Morris was best when it mattered most, in the final act when he learns that Amelia/Maria, whom he thought was his ward, is actually his own granddaughter and Boccanegra’s daughter (it’s this sort of plot nonsense that makes it hard to take the piece seriously). Between the prologue and last act, Morris doesn’t have much to do. While he sounded tentative and worn in the beginning, by the end he reminded listeners why he is the greatest Wotan of his generation, even in Verdi.
Marcello Giordani assumed the tenor role of Adorno. He is now a hit-and-miss singer. He can be thrilling, and he can sound pinched and raw at the top. He is not a subtle singer. This was not one of his better evenings (heard on January 29), and his costume of armor made him look foolish (and hot). Only three or four years ago Giordani promised to be a thrilling and valuable addition to the Met’s tenor roster, but his voice is showing the strain of performance.
Adrianne Pieczonka was Amelia/Maria, the only female character in the opera to speak of (Verdi wrote no substantial part for a mezzo such as Amneris or Ulrica). She has received fine reviews. She has all the notes. The voice carries easily and reaches every corner of the house. She is not much of an actress, however, and she rarely engaged the sympathies of the audience. Perhaps it’s the part that’s lacking.
The villain of the piece is the plebian conspirator Paolo, who helps engineer Boccanegra’s ascent to the leadership of Genoa as Doge, and who, 20 years later, wants Maria as his bride (he doesn’t get her from Boccanegra, so he poisons him). On the 29th Stephen Gaertner substituted for Nicola Alaimo, who was announced as ill. Gaertner wasn’t quite enough the oily Iago. The voice was not strong enough or black enough or evil enough, and as an actor he wasn’t quite the dangerous schemer. But he will be worth hearing again under less demanding conditions.
The conductor for most of the run has been James Levine. For this performance the American J. David Jackson was on the podium. He has been a member of the Met’s music staff for the last decade, and he has conducted in Brussels, Genoa, Wolf Trap and Glyndebourne. Given the listening challenges this opera poses for an audience, the conductor should move it along at a good clip and emphasize all the drama and tension in the piece. Jackson rarely did that. Tempos were slow, tension sagged. He also needs some tailoring advice. At the curtain call he revealed a remarkably ill-fitting suit, and his shirt was untucked from the pants. Yes, the Met is a less formal place than it used to be, but really!
Still, there was Domingo, and he was greeted with warm and prolonged ovations, to which he responded generously. He clearly loves this role. His decision to take on the doomed Doge at this point in his remarkable career was the right one.
What: Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Live at the Met
When: January 29, 2010
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Time: 3 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: J. David Jackson
Next simulcast: Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, March 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm ET