Realpolitik circa 14th-century Genoa

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SAN FRANCISCO: Of Verdi’s greatest works, Simon Boccanegra remains the least performed. After an unsuccessful 1857 premiere, the composer, much like his protagonist, continued to brood upon its failure, and 24 years later substantially revised the opera, garnering a more positive reception.
San Francisco Opera’s production, seen Wednesday night, boasted Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and eloquently demonstrated the richness and distinctive qualities of this work. Indeed with a faultless cast and meticulous music direction by Donald Runnicles, the performance was so perfectly realized on every level, it made criticism virtually irrelevant.
It’s somewhat understandable why Boccanegra has remained on the periphery of the repertoire. The opera boasts no celebrated “hit” arias or set pieces—Fiesco’s Il lacerato spirito comes closest—and the preponderance of low male voices bestows a grim, brooding quality. Finally, the complex, baffling scenario makes Il Trovatore seem linear.

Yet it’s easy to see why Verdi retained such great affection for the opera. There’s a concentration and paring away of non-essentials in Boccanegra. The music has an airy pastoral grace as well as taut explosive power, with the ensembles—that closing Act 1 in particular,—among the finest Verdi ever produced. Further, for the very politically minded Verdi, the opera is a cautionary tale, exploring the Realpolitik dangers of ruling justly in a world of ancient hatreds, mindless violence, and cunning manipulation, as well as the threat of factionalism that threatened to tear his country apart.

In 14th-century Genoa, a man of humble origins, Simon Boccanegra has been elevated to the position of Doge, yet is besieged by enemies: his traitorous former advocate Paolo; the nobleman Fiesco, with whose daughter Maria, he has fathered a child, Amelia; and his now-grown daughter’s lover, Gabriele Adorno whose father Boccanegra had executed. Despite the calumnies and undercover attempts to destroy him, Boccanegra’s continues to rule wisely and benevolently, yet is ultimately overcome and poisoned, though not before forgiving Adorno and elevating him to succeed him.

In the title role, Dmitri Hvorostovsky led a trio of prepossessing singers with the vocal goods to match. Retaining his trademark, perfectly coiffed white mane as the older Doge seemed a bit self-conscious, but otherwise the Siberian baritone appears born to play the role. His Boccanegra is commanding and authoritative, often using a sly charm to persuade his detractors, yet loving and protective of his daughter. Hvorostovsky can sometimes coast on his burnished tone and ease of technique but here he etches an incisive portrait of a well-meaning ruler undone by the relentless motivation of his enemies. Hvorostovsky’s singing was consistently detailed and vividly characterized, the singer often exploiting a wide range of dynamics and coloring.

Adding to the trio of singers with cover-magazine looks, Barbara Frittoli likewise offered a sensitive portrayal of Boccanegra’s secret daughter, Amelia. The Italian soprano sounded wobbly early in the evening, but soon got on track, bringing idiomatic Italianate vocalism and expressive subtlety to the role. The fast-rising tenor Marcus Haddock completed the gene-pool casting as Amelia’s lover, Adorno, singing with dramatic power in his Act 2 aria, and investing a somewhat thankless role with vitality and depth of characterization.

As Boccanegra’s conspirators, Patrick Carfizzi as Paolo displayed a darkly Italianate bass-baritone making the spiteful character’s oily malevolence starkly manifest. Vitalij Kowaljow embodied the dignified and prideful patrician Fiesco, singing with a refined and commodious bass.
Scrupulously attentive to Verdi’s detailed markings, Donald Runnicles brought out the ingenuity of the score and its contrasts, from a pastoral lyricism of almost Mozartian delicacy to the explosive chords and thoughtful pauses of as the characters ponder their next moves.
The revival of the Elijah Moshinsky production offered elegant simplicity, with the clean lines of Michael Yeargan’s sets touched off majestically by Peter J. Hall’s period costumes. With Christopher Maravich’s evocative lighting, the various tableaux resembled Breugel and Canaletto canvasses come to life. Director David Edwards provided a seminar in understated stage direction, avoiding histrionics and having the artists move simply and naturally, speaking and singing in an almost conversational style.
[Photos by Terrence McCarthy]
San Francisco Opera’s Simon Boccanegra has one more performance 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $15-$290. 415-864-3330;

Posted in opera review, Performances

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Thu Sep 25, 2008
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