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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Simon Boccanegra

Plácido Domingo descends (literally) into Genoese politics
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Don't mess with the Doge: Plácido Domingo scowling in Simon Boccanegra.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Verdi’s most political opera chronicles a power struggle in Renaissance Genoa, balanced with the touching story of a father reunited with his long-lost daughter (who happens to be in love with a guy on the other side of the conflict.) Placido Domingo continues his late-career efforts to sing baritone repertory in the title role.  

Simon Boccanegra is a privateer (a kind of licensed pirate) who gets elected to be Doge (ruler) of the city of Genoa in a political coup staged by his friend Paolo. Just before he's elected, Simon finds out that the mother of his child has died and that the child has disappeared. The story then jumps two decades, chronicling  Simon's reconciliation with his daughter and eventual death by slow poison.

With its dark, complex story, and family drama, the 1857 version of Boccanegra was one of the biggest bombs of Verdi’s maturity, failing to find its audience. A revision in 1881 marked the first successful collaboration between the composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, a poet and critic who also composed the opera Mefistofele. Boito tightened the drama and added the crucial and spectacular scene in the Genoese council chamber that brings the long first act to a boiling climax.

Listening to Boccanegra, one discovers a Verdi opera that has its own tinta, with impressionist seascapes and tone pairings of the sunny Italian coast providing much need contrast to the gloom of the city streets and the Doge’s palace. There are also some great set pieces here: the bass aria ’I lacerato spirito’, the long and tender reconciliation between Simon and his daughter, and the aforementioned council chamber scene. That last take place in one of the Met’s mightiest sets, an enormous reproduction that theatre to engulf the singers.

This revival reunites tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo with legendary Met music director James Levine. Lianna Haroutounian is the long-lost Amelia and tenor Josef Calleja is her ardent lover Gabriele Adorno, a part once reserved for Mr. Domingo himself. Finally, star bass Ferrucio Furlanetto holds down the bottom end as Fiesco, who blames the Doge for his daughter's death.

Simon Boccanegra returns to the Met on April 1.

Recording Recommendations:
Despite the success of the 1881 version of this opera it took a while for Boccanegra to enter the standard repertory. Its cause was helped considerably with the appearance of a 1968 DG recording of the score, made at La Scala. The conductor here is Claudio Abbado, who leads an unbeatable cast.

Simon is sung by Piero Cappucilli, a baritone of uncommon with and intelligence who made many recordings on DG. Nikolai Ghauriov is the bereaved Fiesco. The bass’ wife Mirella Freni plays Amelia, Fiesco’s granddaughter. And José Van Dam is perfectly cast here as Paolo, the conniving goldsmith who sets the tragedy in motion. Essential. 

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