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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Opera Preview: Simon Boccanegra at the Met

 Dmitri Hvorostovsky recently sang Boccanegra at San Francisco Opera.
Photo by Brett Coomer © Houston Grand Opera
The next opera on the Met season schedule is a revival of its acclaimed Giancarlo del Monaco production of Simon Boccanegra. The story of a pirate who becomes a statesman, only to win back his long-lost daughter is a complicated one. But what's even better is the story of the opera's initial failure, and its 30-year journey to the operatic stage.

Verdi's first version of Boccanegra sunk at its Venice premiere. Audiences at La Fenice in 1857 found the opera slow going, with a complicated story based on the same Spanish playwright who had inspired Il Trovatore. The story focused on a father and daughter caught in the web of politics in Renaissance Genoa. The opera had a baritonal hero, few memorable tunes and a small part for the tenor. Worst of all, the original version lacked spectacle--a key elements in successful operas. After a few performances, Boccanegra was shelved.

In 1880, Verdi was approached by Arrigo Boito, a composer in his own right and librettist of the opera La Gioconda. Boito wanted to work with Verdi on an idea he had to set Shakespeare's Othello, but the older composer had not worked on an opera since Aida in 1871. To test their potential partnership, Boito had the idea of re-working an earlier, failed Verdi opera. He chose Simon Boccanegra.
Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi
at the composer's home in Saint' Agata.

Boito's resuscitated, reworked Boccanegra streamlined the original libretto and tightened the dramatic action. The biggest change: the addition of the Act I "Council Chamber" scene, which took the audience inside the Genoese legislature and showed Boccanegra as a great statesman, unifying his squabbling people.

The taut sequence, which requires tight choral work and heavy, declamatory singing was written after Verdi served a four-year term as a member of the Chamber of Deputies in the newly formed Italian government, More importantly, it provides the spectacle and intensity that the 1857 version lacked.

The Met's revival of Boccanegra features Dmitri Hvorostovsky, making his house debut in the title role. Barbara Frittoli sings Amelia, his long-lost but loving daughter. Tenor Ramon Vargas takes the role of Gabriele Adorno, a member of the rebels who comes over to Boccanegra's side and eventually succeeds him as Doge of Venice. James Levine conducts.

Recording Recommendation:

I usually put two or three versions of an opera in this space. However, there aren't that many recordings of Boccanegra on the market--and there's only one that's worth your money.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado
Simon Boccanegra: Piero Capucilli
Amelia, his daughter: Mirella Freni
Gabriele Adorno: José Carreras
Fiesco: Nicola Ghiaurov
Paolo: José van Dam

This is one of the finest Verdi recordings of the stereo era. It is the crowning achievement of Claudio Abbado's career on the podium. Finally, this Boccanegra represents the high point of a long, mostly successful collaboration between Maestro Abbado, the La Scala forces and Deutsche Grammophon.

No, I'm not exaggerating.

In the title role, Piero Capuccili ranges from rage to regality. Mirella Freni (whose actual husband appears here as her stepfather--man that's weird) sings with intoxicating beauty. The "Figlia" duet in Act I is performed here with the utmost tenderness. Finally, Carreras, the "other guy" of the Three Tenors, shows his quality as the ardent Gabriele Adorno. Simply definitive.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.