But then ... well I wouldn't call Acts 2 and 3 disappointments, but the music isn't at the same level as the pre-intermission music, and dramatically the opera becomes rather rote in the way it checks off the plot points. Okay here is that baddie Paolo sneaking poison into the Doge's drink. (How did he get into the Doge's palace? One wonders.) Okay here is the clueless tenor who thinks that the Doge is Amelia's lover. He sings an emo aria, because it's already the second half of the opera and it's time for the tenor to finally have an aria. Boccanegra drinks the "bitter water"! Oh no! But all this is just an excuse so all the main characters (Doge, Amelia/Maria, Fiesco, Gabriele) can be reconciled and hold hands and sing Verdian kumbaya before the Doge dies his beautiful, dignified death. By the time the Doge finally died I was more than ready for him to go.
I think another major weakness with the opera is that all the characters (except for Paolo the cartoonish villain) are so freakin' dignified. Opera is dependent on over the top characters and situations, and all this goodness and morality make for a dramatically inert evening. Boccanegra actually has a rather wild past as a pirate, and he has an illegitimate child, but Verdi writes the character as so noble, so full of those long, arching musical lines, that he's ready to be beatified when he dies.
With its dramatically weak plot, Simon Boccanegra is a very singer-dependent opera, and tonight there were no real weak links. Everyone brought their A-game to the stage, and that is always a joy to see. At the center of this excellent performance was Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role. Hvorostovsky's Verdi isn't without controversy -- I've heard consistent complaints that his voice is too small for the major Verdi roles. A few years ago I heard him in Il Trovatore and he seemed to have taken the criticisms to heart. His voice sounded artificially darkened and this elegant singer resorted to barking. I was most disappointed. Well tonight he sounded absolutely wonderful. The darkness of his timbre is very appropriate for the role, as is his naturally dignified stage deportment and ability to sing long, uninterrupted lines of melody without taking a breath. He also didn't force the voice, and, as is often the case when a singer doesn't force, he sounded louder. Not in terms of actual decibels, but in terms of lovely, pure sound that the ears pick up because one wants to hear the voice. The only scene where I'd say his voice really was a tad too small was the Council Scene, where the Doge's voice has to override everyone's on stage. But overall, beautiful performance. What a joy to hear a real bass-baritone voice in Boccanegra, after hearing Domingo last year, who at this stage in his career doesn't sound like a tenor and doesn't sound like a baritone -- he just sounds like a very old singer.
Ferrucio Furlanetto was a huge improvement over last year's Fiesco, James Morris. Furlanetto gave an astounding performance as Philip in this year's revival of Don Carlo. Fiesco isn't as deep or rich of a role, but what a majestic, idiomatic performance! He doesn't have to cede anything to Cesare Siepi or Ezio Pinza or Nazzareno de Angelis - Furlanetto is golden age singing. Hard to believe he's over 60, as his voice has no unsteadiness, and he's able to really fill the auditorium with waves of sound. "Il lacerato spirito" was a highlight, as was his final reconciliation duet with Boccanegra. He also like Hvorostovsky has a natural dignity in his stage deportment that can't be taught. It just comes from within.
Barbara Frittoli was the Amelia and her placid, soothing personality and pleasant lyric soprano remind me of Gabriella Tucci. Her vibrato has loosened, and her timbre isn't the most distinctive, but the role suits her. Her voice sounded very properly angelic, but also has enough cut and bite to ride over the male voices in ensembles. She made an admirable stab at the exposed trills at the end of the Council Scene. Ramon Vargas is one of those singers that I always think looks ridiculous whenever he first steps onstage. He's portly and homely and also too affable in temperament to really pull off the role of Gabriele Adorno, who is supposed to be sort of political firebrand. Vargas looks so awkward brandishing a sword. But then he starts singing and the reservations go away. Vargas has one of the sweetest lyric tenor voices on the opera scene, and it's not a naturally big voice, but again, like Hvorostovsky, he doesn't force the voice to create a bigger sound, and by doing that, he actually creates ... a more audible sound. Adorno is a pretty thankless role though. Nicola Alaimo was Paolo and I really hope he can keep his pleasantly large, hearty baritone and doesn't start barking the way so many Italian baritone are wont to do nowadays. I also hope he diets, because he's extremely large for a young baritone.
The evening's most touching moment might have been during the curtain calls, when the entire cast pointedly applauded James Levine, who is now too weak to walk onstage to take a curtain call. The band played beautifully for Jimmy though. I knew this was going to be a great evening when I could mentally hear the ocean waves during the prelude. Not only did the orchestra sound great, they seemed to adjust for the needs of every performer, something they don't always do. For instance, whenever Vargas sang the orchestra played softly, to accompany the more slender voice.
I have to make a note about the production. Giancarlo delMonaco was the director and his directions don't really consist of more than "___ enters on stage right and ____ leaves on stage left." It doesn't really tell the story. Almost nothing is made of crucial plot points like Amelia showing Doge the portrait of her mother. Maybe when the production was new it told the story better (I do have the 1995 video and should pull it out) but now the production consists of nothing but the most basic blocking. In the last scene. as the Doge expires, hoardes of peasants all of a sudden flood the Council Chamber. How would they get access? And the floods of random people walking about onstage ruins the private quartet between Doge, Maria, Gabriele, and Fiesco. Surely a better solution would be to have an offtage chorus?
The sets by Michael Scott are old-fashioned and ultra-realistic. It's a handsome production, but the problem with these ultra-realistic, stone-and-fake-trees productions is that my mind always starts noticing details that aren't really in-period, or just seem wrong. Simon Boccanegra is an opera with a set time and place -- 14th century Genoa. The prologue does have a vaguely medieval feel, with its gray granite set. But the statue that is at the center of the stage at the end of the prologue is "knocked down" when Boccanegra is elected Doge. Except the statue isn't really "knocked down." It seems instead to be hinged to the base, and the crowd simply pulls down the statue as one would pull down Venetian blinds. The reason for this is clear -- so a new statue doesn't have to be built for every performance -- it can just be pulled up and down. But the moment is so hokey (whoever pulls down a statue that way?) that why do it at all? And the business of the statue takes away from what is supposed to be one of the key plot points -- that as Boccanegra triumphs politically, his personal life is a disaster as he finds the body of his lover Maria. One could watch this production and hardly notice that Boccanegra's lover is dead by the time he's hailed Doge.
|The statue is "knocked down" like a jack in the box|
|Sun-kissed Renaissance Italy =/= 14th centry Genoa|
The opera then jumps 25 years, but in the production, it seems to jump about 200 years, right into Renaissance Italy. Amelia's house is a cheerful, sunny Italian villa with ivy growing on the walls and fake trees in the background. The Doge's Council is filled with wall paintings that are very much like Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and the Doge's house has some Renaissance-style paintings carved into the walls as well. If this were a more abstract, stylized production, these inconsistencies wouldn't bother me as much. But if you're going to do an ultra-realistic You Are in 1300s Genoa production, this stuff becomes more noticeable. As a side note, one of my favorite places to go in Manhattan is the Cloisters. I used to live up in Inwood and the Cloisters is built in the style of a medieval monastery. Inside were many medieval tapestries, which I always found quite beautiful. If Michael Scott wanted to go to the trouble of painting the Doge's palace with tapestries, at least make them from the right era!
|Notice the very Michaelangelo paintings on the wall|
Overall though it was a great night of Verdi singing at the Met, and it's a shame there were only six performances scheduled, and only three performances left. There are plenty of tickets available, get one and go!