"It's good to be the king," proclaims a pompous Louis XVI (a.k.a. Mel Brooks) in the 1981 comedy flick, History of the World, Part I. While few would argue the wisdom of Brooks' iconic catch-phrase, the Met's February 6 performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra suggests that it may be even better to be Plácido Domingo. On-stage or off, Domingo rules.
At 69 years of age, and with over 130 different operatic roles to his credit spanning an enterprising 42-year career, Domingo continues to dominate the headlines as our greatest living tenor, while broadening his sphere of influence as a conductor (including the Met's production of Verdi's Stiffelio), an arts manager (Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera) and an organizer of international vocal competitions. Domingo continues to dominate the stage as well: No other character in Saturday's performance came even close to matching strides with his vocal prowess or acting abilities. When Domingo took his final curtain call, folks in my theater burst out into enthusiastic and spontaneous applause – for the man, not the king.
Although I consider myself a hardcore Verdi aficionado, I must admit that I have trouble warming up to Simon Boccanegra. As a product of the composer's middle-period, this opera pales in comparison to the melodic grace and clarity of dramatic flow of his other operas dating from the 1850's, including La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto. And then there's the plot: a long-winded, convoluted and needlessly complicated drama that in part explains why the work flopped (with a vengeance) at its first performance, in 1857. On the other hand, there's much beautiful music to be found in Verdi's score, which the listener can appreciate if s/he doesn't take the plot too seriously.
The story, set in the 14th-century seaport city of Genoa, centers upon Boccanegra (Domingo), a former corsair now-turned-legit who is being urged by the plebeians to challenge the current aristocratic government by running for the elected post of Doge (Chief Magistrate). Boccanegra reluctantly obliges, wins the election, and then spends the next 25 years trying to maintain a peaceful coexistence among the disparate political forces that threaten to unravel the fragile republic. Add to the mix Boccanegra's ill-fated love affair and illegitimate child, and you've got the fodder for a Verdi opera.
Of course, the hullabaloo over the current Met production has little to do with the plot, or for that matter, Verdi. It's all about Domingo (sound familiar?), and the venerable tenor's decision to tackle the baritone role of Boccanegra, which is widely acknowledged as among the most taxing in baritone repertory.
Considering the preponderance of low voices in this opera (there's only one female lead), it's understandable that Verdi would seek greater demands from his lead singer's higher register. Domingo's dramatic helden-tenor already possesses some of the deeper colors of a baritone, while his natural tenor register is capable of taking the edge off the pernicious demands of the role's upper register.
Still, it was clear throughout Saturday's performance that Domingo lacks a good deal of the timbral intensity that defines a true baritone. What we heard, ultimately, was the voice of a tenor singing the role of a baritone – which in this opera, at least, is not at all bad. To be sure, there were times when Domingo made his arias and duets sound as if they were designed to be sung by a tenor, such as during his powerful duet with Amelia, Figlia, a tal nome palpito.
Whether you agree or take issue with Domingo's decision to tackle the role of Boccanegra, there can be little doubt that his performance was, by any measure, truly outstanding.
Domingo's commanding onstage presence drew and maintained the listener's attention, and his portrayal of the despondent Doge melded singer and actor into a flesh-and-blood character with whom we could empathize. He stayed in character throughout the performance and did not shy away from hitting the ground, hard, when collapsing from the effects of the poison at the end of the final act. His final word, "Maria," carried with it the weight of Orson Wells' celebrated declaration, "Rosebud."
Domingo's vocal delivery ran the gamut from thunderous fury when unraveling the details of his daughter's kidnapping, to the more subdued eloquence of his statesmanship in imploring his councilors to mend their differences (Plebe! Patrizi!), and finally to the muted undertones of his final blessing to his daughter Amelia and her betrothed.
As Amelia (a.k.a. Maria), Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka was strong in voice throughout the performance and sang with an attractive and richly timbred vocal quality that exuded confidence. Her muscular delivery worked wonders during the dramatic Figlia, a tal nome palpito, where she allowed her character to burst at the seams with joy when she discovers that Boccanegra is her father. Coupled with Verdi's magnificent orchestral writing, her duet with Domingo proved to be the singular highpoint of this performance.
Curiously, Pieczonka did little to temper the muscle of her vocal delivery during those moments where subtlety was needed most, such as the delicate moment of solitude and reflection in the garden at the Grimaldi Palace, where she recounts her unhappy childhood during the cavatina, Come in quest'ora bruna. Pieczonka's high register also showed signs of strain during sustained passages. While her facial expressions managed to craft a sympathetic character, Pieczonka's tendency to squint as she sings became an annoying distraction, which under the scrutiny of TV Director Barbara Willis Sweete's close-up camera-work often made her appear as if she had just swallowed a teaspoon of tabasco sauce.
Marcello Giordani, as the Genoa nobleman and Amelia's fiancé, Gabriele Adorno, was in excellent vocal form Saturday, with very few reminders of his tendency to force the top of his range above the intended pitch. His bright lyric tenor, with its clean bel canto lines and smooth legato connecting his low-and-high registers, is well suited for Verdi roles, and he had no trouble soaring above the orchestral accompaniments.
Although Giordani's acting in the first act was limited to stock facial expressions that more often than not appeared contrived, his signature second-act aria (Sento avvampar nell'anima), where he flies into a rage of jealousy over Amelia's presumed involvement with Boccanegra, was well-acted. In the following scene, where Gabriele learns that his beloved Amelia is actually Boccanegra's daughter, Giordani appeared genuinely sincere, repentant and dramatically convincing.
As Jacopo Fiesco (a.k.a. Andrea), James Morris began rather tentatively, with a rich and handsome bass-baritone that nevertheless routinely faded in the low register. As an actor, the 62 year-old Morris appeared less tortured than simply exhausted when delivering the Prologue's Il lacerato spirito, where he grieves the passing of his beloved daughter Maria before cursing Boccanegra for robbing his child of her virtue. Moreover, there was a pronounced aloofness to his character's fury in this aria that belied his cursing of the Virgin Mary for not protecting her.
Morris' character (and voice) came alive in the final act when he began to gloat, in a fit of hateful revenge, as Paolo tells him that Boccanegra had been poisoned – only to discover soon afterwards that Marie is in fact Fiesco's granddaughter. Morris' poignant duet of remorse with Domingo that followed, lamenting that the peace between them had come too late, was credible and moving.
Although the printed Met HD Broadcast program listed Nicola Alaimo as the nefarious courtier, Paolo, it was in fact Stephen Gaertner (understudy to the production's original Paolo, Patrick Carfizzi) who sang the role at the February 6 performance.
It's interesting to note that Gaertner's Paolo grew stronger, and more dramatically convincing, as his character grew more treacherous – beginning when Boccanegra, after learning that Amelia (a.k.a. Maria) is his long-lost daughter, abruptly tells Paolo to abandon his plans to marry the girl. Hell hath no fury like a villain in a Verdi opera, and Paolo soon orchestrates Amelia's abduction and the fatal poisoning of the Doge. Gaertner's baritone (the role properly calls for a bass-baritone) appeared weak and tentative in the Prologue, where he could barely be heard above the chorus. His voice blossomed however at the beginning of Act II, as if he had been saving himself for the chilling monologue, Me stresso ho maledetto.
In the smaller role of Pietro, Richard Bernstein sang with a pleasant bass-baritone rich in color, and always remained in-character (with the help of some well-crafted facial expressions) as the unctuous accomplice to Paolo. Sadly, Pietro's motives behind his blind obedience to Paolo, as the latter plots Boccanegra's demise, was never made clear – either by Verdi or Bernstein. Paolo turned against his long-time ally, Boccanegra, because he was scorned, but what was Pietro's motive – other than convenience of plot?
Stage Director Peter McClintock tastefully reprised Giancarlo del Monaco's original 1995 Met production, with visually appealing sets and costumes by Michael Scott that faithfully evoked the Italian Trecento.
Scott's gloomy interior to Fiesco's palace during the Prologue, abetted by Lighting Director Wayne Chouinard's drab lighting, hints at the pervasive doom that permeates much of the story, while the handsome ivy-covered walls that adorn the Grimaldi Palace in Act I portend the only bright spots in the hearts of both Fiesco and Boccanegra: the young and innocent Amelia. Scott's stunning adaptation of the Council Chamber in Scene 2 of this act, adorned with murals on the walls and ceiling and anchored by a magnificent throne, was breathtaking. His period costumes – a colorful assortment of early-Italian Renaissance attire – were full in color and detail, lending a measure of authenticity to the production.
Met Opera Music Director James Levine led a willing and oftentimes enthusiastic Met Opera orchestra in a detailed rendition of Verdi's score, whose complicated writing at times seems to mirror the complexity of the plot. Levine appeared to take special delight in milking the more poignant aspects of music, favoring relaxed tempos that allowed the phrases to breathe. During his interview with Renée Fleming prior to the start of the performance, Levine admitted "I never can get enough of it [Boccanegra]," and it showed. There were some fine individual and ensemble efforts from the orchestra, such as the tutti horn section unison passage in Act III, which truly sounded as one instrument, and the extended bass clarinet solo at the end of Act I, whose lines begin drooping with each successive melodic entrance – a harbinger, perhaps, of the curse (maledetto) that will ultimately consume the Doge.
Verdi makes abundant use the chorus as a dramatic tool in Simon Boccanegra, and the Met Chorus delivered its crowd scenes at times to chilling effect, from the angry mob's cries of death (morte) during the second scene of Act I to the hushed assembly of townspeople who echo Boccanegra's curse (Sia maledetto!) upon the man who kidnapped his daughter.
By David Abrams
Photos: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
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