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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Opera Review: To Thine Own Self Be True

Plaçido Domingo brings Verdi's Simon Boccanegra back to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Elected: Plaçido Domingo (kneeling) is elevated to Doge in Somon Boccanegra.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Plaçido Domingo is a veritable institution in the world of opera. In his early career, his ringing tenor voice and bold stage presence gave life to all the major Verdi tenor roles from Ernani to Otello. Now 75, the singer has spent most of this decade taking on baritone roles in Verdi operas. This week at the Met, he returned to sing the most demanding of these: the title role in Simon Boccanegra.

A product of Verdi's mature middle period, Boccanegra nonetheless flopped with audiences in 1853 premiere. Working with librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi revised the opera in 1881. It finally found life onstage thanks to the popularity of the title role among baritones in the 20th century. It is a complex political drama, telling of the rise and fall of Simon to the title of Doge (ruler) in Renaissance-era Genoa, and of the Doge's reunion with his long-lost daughter after twenty years apart. Boccanegra is a demanding part, calling for a wide range of vocal color and nuance, as well as considerable power in the scenes here the Doge has to lay down the law.

On Friday night, Mr. Domingo was greeted with applause at his entry in the first act. From his first lines this was an improvement over his 2010 Met appearances as Simon. He seemed more sure of himself and less raw and awkward. However, he sang with effort in the Council Chamber Scene, adding mannerisms and switching between three very different vocal styles in an effort to convey the multiplicity of emotions that the role requires. Following the intermission, he sang the part with his normal tenor voice: a great improvement. Throughout, this performance was dramatically nuanced and musically intelligent: it just sounded better when he stopped pretending to be a baritone and was just his own self.

When this production premiered in 1995, it was Mr. Domingo who sang the role of Gabriele Adorno, the fiery nobleman who is at first Boccanegra's enemy and by the opera's end, his son-in-law. Here, the role was taken by tenor Joseph Calleja. His ringing voice and boisterous stage personality made this the most exciting role of the evening, adding power to ensembles and drawing nuance with every syllable of his arias. Most importantly, he made the second act exciting, bringing energy to the Hamlet-like scene where Adorno contemplates murdering the sleeping Boccanegra. Credit here must also go to stage director Eric Einhorn, who made the often-stodgy later acts of this opera move smoothly and without apparent effort.

In her second major Verdi role at the Met (she sang Elisabeth in Don Carlo last year), soprano Lianna Haroutounian had an awkward entrance. Her opening aria was over-loud and she pulled sharp in the big moments. The presence of Mr. Domingo and Mr. Calleja seemed to settle her down and by the Council Chamber Scene she was in the opera's proverbial groove. This is a potent, if sometimes inaccurate soprano voice, a real Verdi instrument with spinto qualities and a touch of flint that can slice cleanly through a big ensemble to get her character's message across.

Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was world-weary and resigned as Fiesco. This vengeance-crazed nobleman who blames Boccanegra for the early death of his daughter and plots against him (mostly in the shadows) for most of the opera. Indeed, the reconciliation scene between Mr. Domingo and Mr. Furlanetto was utterly absorbing, the confrontation of two singers who, knowing each other as well as they do, make each other better when together. As the scheming Paolo, Brian Mulligan proved to be a singer to watch, his burly, sturdy instrument indicating that the role of Boccanegra himself may be in his future.

This performance also marked the return of music director James Levine to the orchestra pit, whose entry was warmly received by the audience. His tempos in the opening scene were slow and hesitant, as if he was trying to slip into the opera's unique, nautical rhythm. Matters improved in the great Council Chamber Scene, which had power and snap particularly in the final "Maladetto" chorus. The last act, with its slow curtain over the fallen Simon, had this conductor's old magic return for a few glorious moments in the quiet closing bars of the score.
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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.