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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Opera Review: Simon Boccanegra and the Chamber of Doom

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: The Doge Abides
Photo by Pasha Antonov
The Metropolitan Opera's 2011 revival of Simon Boccanegra continues to be plagued by illness. For Monday's performance, it was conductor James Levine who was down with a bug. He was replaced in the pit by Met assistant conductor John Keenan, who had previously assisted Mr. Levine with preparing the score. Mr. Keenan was aided by a strong cast, anchored by the suave Doge of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the forza della natura bass singing of Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The role of Boccanegra is a stretch for Mr. Hvorostovsky, and it taxes the outer limits of his instrument. He was strong in the Prelude, facing off with Mr. Furlanetto in a duel of extended bass notes at the end of their first duet. The handsome Russian baritone sang with warm, creamy tone in crucial father-daughter duet, floating a gorgeous "Figlia!" above the stave. But when it came to the Council Chamber scene, the very heart of this opera, Mr. Hvorostovsky seemed overwhelmed.

Giancarlo del Monaco's giant, Renaissance-inspired set is the showpiece of this production, but the bane of baritones. The Doge's throne is at the very rear of this vast, square-ceilinged chamber, which looks good on TV but is less than ideal for singing. For Simon's royal address to reach the audience, the voice must traverse fifty feet of faux marble and then punch over the orchestral brass and percussion at crucial moments. Mr. Hvorostovsky has a velvet glove of a voice, but it lacked the iron fist within it needed for this crucial scene.

In this performance, it was the more intimate second act that was the highlight: a fascinating essay in family dynamics and power politics that are at the core of the story. The Act II duet with tenor Ramon Vargas was thrilling as only great Verdi can be. And the final trio of that act, where the two political antagonists are forcibly separated by the Doge's daughter Amelia (Barbara Frittoli) was the evening's most thrilling passage. For her part, Ms. Frittoli made a strong contribution to the cast, with a pleasing soprano voice that develops an audible vibrato when above mezzo forte.

Mr. Furlanetto's portrayal of the embittered Fieschi ranks next to his King Philip in Don Carlo, seen earlier this season. Singing with a rich tone laced with heartbreak, the bass brought tragic weight to "Il lacerato spirito." In the later acts, his Fieschi was less a father figure than an implacable spirit of vengeance, cutting through ensembles as a stern reminder of the political forces that dogged the Doge. His final duet with Mr. Hvorostovsky, coming right before the death scene, rang with warmth and forgiveness.

This cast boasts another fine bass: Nicola Alaimo in the role of the villainous Paolo. This character gets some of the opera's best music--a narrative passage in the Prologue, the Curse Scene, and his snarling Act II aria where he plots Boccanegra's death. Also, tenor Ramon Vargas, (recovered from his illness at the prima) sang his first Gabriele of the season, an ardent performance. This Mexican tenor's sweet, lyric voice is a little light for the part, but he held his own with Mr. Hvorostovsky and Ms. Frittoli, singing two passionate duets with the soprano.

Although Mr. Levine's golden touch with Verdi was missed, Mr. Keenan led a solid, competent performance, marred only by odd slow-downs in tempo and the occasional bad note during the brass tuttis at the end of the Council Chamber Scene.

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