Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29 June 2010 3.5 stars

Placido DomingoCelebrating his 225th performance at Covent Garden, and his first in a baritone role, the legendary tenor Placido Domingo took to the stage as the title character in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.

It's a part he's always wanted to play: for years he's said he'd end his career with this opera, and he has spent the past season taking it to Berlin, Milan, New York and now London, with Madrid to come next month.

Domingo's performance is the motivation behind the revival, and he does not disappoint. It's true that in no way does he appear to attempt to create the baritone colour in his voice: he sings it almost exactly as he would any Verdi tenor role. But of course, it's a lot more comfortable for him at this stage in his career, and the result is one of the most relaxed performances I've seen him give in years.

His entrance scene was striking firstly for his physical appearance and behaviour: as the young 'pirate' Boccanegra, Domingo threw himself about the stage and sported a dark wig. From the beginning, his commitment to the piece was obvious, as was the excellent condition of his voice. The latter is something intriguing: on record of late, the signs of age have started to show, but to hear him live was to witness the scale of voice and expressivity that made him famous.

It was as the older Boccanegra that he truly excelled, however. To play the father is something that suits Domingo's appearance now, and it seems to me that it adds yet another string to his bow. No longer the dashing lover or young poet, he's able to explore new emotions and aspects to his acting by adopting a parental persona – one which is contrasted with his responsibilities as the Doge, of course. Domingo was absolutely in his element in the Council Chamber Scene: the centre of attention is where he likes to be, and his communication of the character's courage in dealing with the plebeians and patricians in the midst of their violence was impressively compelling. Still, the death scene was (perhaps inevitably) his real tour de force. Here, the portrayal of Boccanegra's physical weakening as the poison takes over his body was subtly done, matched with a high level of expressive nuance in the voice and his unending musicality.

Placido DomingoI believe that the credit for some of this must go to Antonio Pappano, always the most sensitive of accompanists. It's clear from his recent BBC series that Pappano contributes keenly to the singers' emphases in their ROH appearances, and the Domingo-Pappano alliance is ideal from the point of view of the text. It was also striking that Pappano allowed the orchestra off the reins more at this performance than is often the case: more than once, they slightly drowned out the singers, but on one level this was thrilling. The chorus, too, hasn't sounded better all season. My only real concern was that some of the speeds were on the ponderous side: Amelia's racconto and the Adorno-Fiesco duet in Act 1, for instance, needed tightening, but as ever Pappano's attention to detail was miraculous (there was an amazing softness in the high strings of the final number, for instance).

Placido DomingoAside from Domingo, the rest of the cast was slightly uneven. Ferruccio Furlanetto's Fiesco was as excellent as ever, but the two debutant young lovers were less successful. Marina Poplavskaya's Amelia came into her own in Act 2, where her innate histrionic ability as an actress came to the fore. Earlier, in Act 1, the tone lacked the floating creaminess at the top that so much of this music needs, and memories of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the role were not erased. Joseph Calleja was a favourite with the audience, and it's not hard to see why: he has a natural facility with the voice and is a very emotional, traditional singer. However, for my taste his vibrato is too fast and too unchanging, and I sometimes wished he would seek out a greater dynamic range. I also felt that Jonathan Summers made rather heavy weather of the role of Paolo, who seemed too much of a caricature to be capable of such a high-profile conspiracy against the Doge.

Elijah Moshinsky's production remains popular – this is its fifth revival – and it does what it does perfectly well. Michael Yeargan's sets are broadly atmospheric and the late Peter J. Hall's costumes are elegant and evocative. However, at times there is a tendency to generalise, especially in the chorus's actions, and Domingo and Furlanetto are patently bringing lots to their characters on their own; the others are slightly left behind. Still, this is a good solid revival, and Domingo has once again created a real winner for the Royal Opera.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore

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Interview with Joyce DiDonato
Interview with Renée Fleming
Interview with Antonio Pappano
Interview with Colin Lee