Every time I revisit Simon Boccanegra I am left mystified as to why it languished in relative obscurity for so long. The score is worthy to place alongside the great cornerstones of late Verdi: Otello, Aïda and, to my mind, the greatest - Don Carlos. The titular protagonist is one of the greatest baritone roles in opera offering both huge musical challenges and a daunting dramatic arc from the piratical man of action to the dying statesman. His antagonist, Fiesco is only surpassed by Filippo II in the canon of great Verdian bass roles. Both tenor and soprano roles offer a multitude of musical riches and dramatically rise well beyond stock operatic lovers. Finally, in Paulo Albani Verdi created his most rewarding comprimario baritone role as well as laying the ground for the creation of Iago.
Many commentators cite the unrelieved darkness of the story as reason for Boccanegra’s neglect but that theory hardly holds water when both Don Carlos and La forza del destino did not suffer the same fate. Even the fact that the standard edition is a stitched together adaptation of the original 1857 Venice version with 1881 additions and excisions made for La Scala should not count against its success. By 1881 Verdi was a total master of his craft and had the advantage of working with Boito on Piave’s original libretto. Yet even now Boccanegra does not guarantee a full house unless accompanied by a stellar cast.
Two years ago the Royal Opera presented an all-star cast headed by Plácido Domingo. Tickets were as hard to come by as the proverbial domestic fowl’s incisors. I suspect the current cast was a less easy sell for the Opera House. However, in many ways I found this a more satisfying presentation of Verdi’s dark masterpiece and not only because the cast was headed by a real baritone giving back the work its distinctive musical colours which Domingo, for all his gifts, was unable to encompass.
Several aspects remained constant from the previous revival. Firstly we had the benefit of Elijah Moshinsky’s long-lived production. Moshinsky tends to come in for a lot of stick from those who prefer their opera productions to be untrammelled by the composer’s dramatic instructions and it is true that on occasions Moshinsky can appear to have been sponsored by a well-known brand of varnishing products. However his productions have lasted because they present the operas in handsome and practical settings and set out the narratives with clarity and perception. And after some utterly wretched productions of this opera at various other addresses it comes as a blessed relief to return to this one. To put it plainly - it works, it hits all the right notes and, most importantly the great moments are sublimely moving. I have seen the production with many casts over the years and it never fails. Combined with Michael Yeargan’s simple yet grand sets and Peter J Hall’s beautiful costumes, this production deserves to continue for many years to come. A word also for Howard Harrison’s painterly lighting, although something went strangely awry with the timing of crossfade into the final scene.
The other advantage carried over was the conducting of Antonio Pappano. Pappano is now one of the world’s great Verdians and his interpretation of this score deserves to be set alongside that of Claudio Abbado. The ROH orchestra responded with some of the best playing of the season with the many woodwind solos standing out as particularly treasurable.
As mentioned earlier, the title role was returned to its rightful voice type. In the past I have had many doubts relating to Thomas Hampson’s Verdi singing. Superb artist though he undoubtedly is, the voice seemed wrong for the big roles such as Macbeth, Renato and Posa. So it was with some fairly hefty reservations that I approached his singing of a role that is only exceeded by Rigoletto in its demands. Much hat eating later, I have to hail his Boccanegra as one of the most commanding of my experience (that experience going back as far as Milnes and Cappuccilli). Hampson also has the unusual advantage of still being able to convince as the man of action in the Prologue as well as the shattered husk of a man in the final scene. His acting of the role was unusually subtle - Boccanegra can easily seem far too saintly, making his enemies seem entirely unreasonable. Hampson’s Doge was clearly a man not afraid to soil his hands with blood to maintain his position. There was a beautifully judged moment in Act 2 when, during Adorno’s “Dammi la morte”, Hampson standing upstage held his dagger weighing which way to turn. For once the path was far from certain - this could have gone either way. Vocally, Hampson had no trouble dominating the Council Scene but also produced ravishing quiet singing when required (there were, for the record, a couple of instances when he manipulated the vocal line too far for dramatic effect). His final scenes, almost crawling towards death, were as moving as any I recall.
In this he had the inestimable advantage of playing opposite Ferruccio Furlanetto’s granite Fiesco. The Italian bass, in his second great Verdian role of the season, is still almost ideal casting as Verdi’s implacable avenger. Yesterday he took a time to warm up and “Il lacerato spirito” did not show him at his best, but by the time he reached the first of the two great baritone—bass confrontations which bookend the opera, the voice was back on full throttle. Furlanetto never lets the grief-wracked parent be entirely subsumed by the hate filled nemesis which allows the scene to move as well as horrify. Moshinsky’s canny blocking aided both singers, with Hampson’s Boccanegra, despite his height advantage, always seeming to cower in the presence of Fiesco.
When we next meet Fiesco, he has become a man locked in a tunnel-visioned desire for revenge. It is symptomatic that during Boccanegra’s impassioned plea “Plebe! Patrizi” only Fiesco remains unmoved, continuing to grumble on of the shame and degradation brought on Genoa. In the final scene when the two men are finally brought full circle it is Boccanegra who exclaims in joy at the chance to finally fulfil the demands made of him in the Prologue while Fiesco, ignoring him, continues to declaim “Come un fantasima Fiesco t’appar” as if trying to block any hope of reconciliation. When the bitter truth is finally revealed and his thirst for revenge shown as utterly pointless, Furlanetto is superb in demonstrating the total inner collapse of the man finding out his life’s work is based on a nullity.
While Hampson and Furlanetto are the two lynchpins of this revival, the Royal Opera has cast from strength in the supporting roles too. Hibla Gerzmava is far from conventional casting as Amelia, with a dark toned dramatic soprano. This resulted in the opening aria “Come in quest'ora bruna” being the least successful part of her assumption. The aria benefits from the silvery sound that was stock-in-trade of te Kanawa or, more recently, Anja Harteros. Gerzmava’s voice is too large and dark to comfortably encompass the pure lines required. However, once past this slightly bumpy start, she proved a notable asset producing some lovely creamy singing in duets with her father and lover as well as rising thrillingly over the Council Chamber ensemble. I notice she is already booked to play the title role in Pappano’s recording of Aïda slated for 2015. An enticing prospect.
Even more exciting was the debut of the American tenor, Russell Thomas as Gabriele Adorno. Possessing of a truly thrilling voice, Thomas is a really exciting addition to the all too small roster of Verdian tenors. At present he has a slight tendency to launch at top notes and he could afford to sing quietly more often, but those are very small quibbles set against his huge potential. He is also an excellent actor and has a burly, handsome stage presence. In a few years, given careful nurturing, he could well be the Radamès, Alvaro and Otello we have been waiting for. Meanwhile I look forward to his return in other roles.
Finally we were lucky to have set against Hampson’s Doge Dimitri Platanias’ pit-bull of a Paolo. Platanias revelled in the dramatic opportunities and sang the role in full bronzed tones befitting a full Verdi baritone. His short aria at the opening of Act 2 was a model of concentrated drama.
There are five more performances of this revival. Anyone who loves Verdian singing and electrifying drama should book now.
Photographs © Clive Barda