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Reclaiming the Doge

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/20/2011 -  & January 24, 28, February 1*, 5, 2011
Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Simon Boccanegra), Barbara Frittoli (Amelia Grimaldi), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Jacopo Fiesco), Ramón Vargas (Gabriele Adorno), Nicola Alaimo (Paolo Albiani), Richard Bernstein (Pietro), Adam Laurence Herskowitz (Captain), Edyta Kulczak (Maid)
Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine (Conductor)
Giancarlo del Monaco (Production), Michael Scott (Set and Costume Designer), Wayne Chouinard (Lighting Designer), Peter McClintock (Stage Director)

D. Hvorostovsky and F. Furlanetto
(© Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera)

Almost exactly a year after Plácido Domingo, who had been touring the world with the part made his Met debut as a baritone in the title role of Simon Boccanegra (Read here and here), Dmitri Hvorostovsky reclaimed the mantle of the Doge for the baritone voice as Verdi’s powerful masterpiece returned to the Met.

The current production by Giancarlo del Monaco premiered at the Met in 1995, when it received a dozen performances. It has been revived several times since then, for Thomas Hampson in 2007, and to the most fanfare, for tenor Plácido Domingo in 2010. A striking contrast with the stark, spare, and sea-suffused Teatro Real production, also by del Monaco, the Met’s production has an overall look of somewhat drab and faded realism, adding little to this sweeping tale of love lost and found, of vengeance sworn and forsaken, of loyalty and treachery, of war and peace. But neither was there much to distract from the drama or the music. The one exception was, perhaps, the stage effect making use of the large statue dominating the square during the Prologue. When the disconcertingly brown-haired Hvorostovsky as Boccanegra was proclaimed Doge, the mob flung ropes around the statue, dragging it from its pedestal. Somewhat bizarrely it then folded back with great delicacy, settling gently to earth and allowing access to the convenient steps via which Boccanegra could mount the pedestal in his moment of hollow triumph.

Last year, the Met presented Boccanegra with two intermissions, but this year there was only a single intermission between Acts I and II, increasing the number of prolonged pauses while the detailed sets for each scene were changed. The first change covered the passage of 25 years, and brought us to the garden of the Grimaldi estate. Warm and golden, this was both a visual and emotional contrast to the cold, grim Prologue, a private space in contrast with a public square. After another pause, the council chamber scene, set with old wood, inlaid marble, lavish trompe-l’oeil painting, and the chorus draped in sumptuous velvets, seemed to gleam with a subdued light, suggesting the seat of power of an old and venerable empire. As the curtain rose it garnered a spirited round of applause, something usually reserved for live animals on stage or for the more elaborate of the Zeffirelli sets.

The Doge’s chamber of the second act returned us to a private space, lacking both the grandeur of the public council chamber and the warmth of the private Grimaldi home. This Spartan moonlit interior was a fit setting for the mistrust and sorrow played out in Act II, and for the ultimate betrayal of murder. The last act returned us to the faded opulence of the council chamber, with Boccanegra’s death playing out as both a private and public moment.

The graceful legato and lyric beauty with which he shapes a line have long been among Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s greatest strengths, and he used these skills to greatest effect in the quieter moments of Simon Boccanegra. He infused the tender recognition scene with his daughter with a breathless momentum and glowing lyricism. Perhaps his most stunning scene was the death of Boccanegra, however, when he spun seemingly endless lines without apparent need for breath, enhancing the ethereal aspects of his ultimate moment of reconciliation and departure.

Nearly all of Simon’s most moving musical moments are shared with his adversary Fiesco, from their first confrontation after Maria’s death in the Prologue to Simon’s death at the end of Act III. Indeed, the ongoing conflict between these two titanic figures threads through the opera, providing much of its emotional and dramatic underpinning. Ferruccio Furlanetto brought his rich resonant bass to this key role, singing with majesty and power, making us feel Fiesco’s grief at his daughter’s death, his frustration at the loss of his granddaughter, and his grief at seeing his beloved city in the hands of the man he holds responsible for all his loss. Every phrase was elegantly shaped, beautifully colored and subtly nuanced. His abrupt relinquishment of the vengeance that had sustained him for so long gave way to a fresh grief that his forgiveness had come too late, adding greatly to the poignancy of Boccanegra’s death.

As Amelia, Barbara Frittoli sang with a clear shining voice, even throughout her range. She was especially strong in the thrilling council chamber scene, relating the tale of her abduction, and then joining Boccanegra in his call for peace. She had the vocal heft to soar above the ensemble, blending beautifully and providing the necessary leavening for all those male voices.

She was well-matched with her Adorno, Ramón Vargas, who portrayed an earnest lover torn between his allegiances to his father and to Amelia. While none of Adorno’s arias are real show-stoppers, Vargas’ joyful “Come in quest’ora bruna” and his tender “Perdon, Amelia” showed his clean powerful tenor to good advantage. Nicola Alaimo, making his Met debut in this run, was a beautifully treacherous Paolo. His weighty, richly colored baritone was an excellent complement to Hvorostovsky’s more lyric instrument. He conveyed the depth of Paolo’s bafflement and frustration at Boccanegra’s abandonment, giving motivation to his acts of betrayal, and adding poignancy to his final scene as he is led to his execution.

James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with a verve and energy that belied recent concerns about his health, in turns bringing out both the delicate textures and the raw power of Verdi’s score. He was greeted with ecstatic applause when he entered the pit, and at the curtain calls, and seemed deeply happy to be there, enjoying the evening as much as the audience.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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