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Simon Boccanegra at LA Opera Review - A Phenomenon!

By Georja Umano and Gerald Everett Jones

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The chorus plays the forces of Genoa (red robes) and the mob, confronting the Doge (Domingo, at right)

Georja: Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at LA Opera is an operatic and cultural phenomenon. It stays with you like the intrigues of a Shakespeare play, rings through your senses like a Tibetan gong, evokes the catharsis of a Greek tragedy, and makes you swoon and twitter with the high-stakes emotion of first love. There is so much to love about this piece and this production that I don’t know where to begin.

Gerald: This nearly three-hour opera of Verdi’s is not well known and has been seldom performed. In our generation, Jose Carreras starred in it at La Scala in Milan, and then Domingo revived it again in a Royal Opera House production at Covent Garden, which has traveled here, literally, sets and all. (But we provided our world-class chorus, about which I will have more to say later.)

Placido Domingo in the title role

 

Georja: If you are partial to testosterone-exuding deep bass voices, you will not be disappointed with the major villain Jacopo Fiesco, played hauntingly by Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow. We were introduced to Kowaljow’s clear authoritarian bass when he played Woton in the Ring Cycle. Here his voice opens up with the Italian fervor and deep emotion to give an unbelievably beautiful and expressive tone. In the prologue he fights with the hero Simon Boccanegra, played to the hilt by our dear master Placido Domingo. Just this duet is worth the price of admission and more. The prologue is populated by deep resonant voices also including that of Paolo Gavanelli as Paolo Albiani, another great villain. We saw him as the wonderfully comic husband Don Geronio in Rossini’s The Turk in Italy, and here he stretches into a conniving and evil fellow. Robert Pomakov as Pietro adds to the wonderful bass mix.

Gerald: Apparently, Verdi was always conflicted about how to treat this dark story. He loaded it up with voices in the low-end register as a creative choice, but then when the piece failed to gain popularity after its premiere in 1857, he fretted that it might be just too gloomy.

Boccanegra comforts Amelia (Ana Maria Martinez)

Georja: In Act I we are introduced to the one major female voice, a young soprano, Ana Maria Martinez as Amelia. Her voice is such a contrast with the men when it goes into very its very high tones, it is almost a shock from the masculine world of the prologue. And yet as the story progresses and she sings with the male voices, she is perfectly matched and her voice is just the opposition in the mix that makes everything come together in beautiful balance. Her teaming with her young love, tenor Stefano Secco as Gabriele Adorno, is lovely. However, when Domingo takes the stage as her long-lost father, he rules the stage. Never have I witnessed in literature or stage the unbridled emotional scene of a reunion of father and daughter. This, too, is a stand-out scene which has stayed in my heart. The utter beauty. The longing from both sides and the pure love. Perfectly executed by Domingo and Martinez. This is what opera is all about. It brought back to me longings for my own long deceased father. Domingo is such a sweet tenor. The idealism in this role suits him to a tee.

Paolo Gavanelli as the scheming Paolo Albiani

Gerald: Boccanegra’s character arc is at the heart of the story, but it took Verdi awhile to get it right. After the disappointments of 1857, he stuck the opera on the shelf. He dusted it off twenty-four years later in 1881, just ten years before his own death. In the rewrite, Verdi added the resounding Council of Genoa scene at the end of Act I, and he emphasized the gentle “philosopher-king” side of the old Doge.

Georja: Other superior idealistic moments are sprinkled throughout when you see the Domingo as Boccanegra, the once murdering pirate now benevolent and kind ruler. Accompanied by the chorus, he sings of peace and love, and he is sublime. It is a peace activist’s dream. He puts himself second to the good of the people, for the sake of trust, for the unification of Italy. We love him for his altruism, and we’re rewarded by his superstar voice.

Ana Maria Martinez as Maria, aka Amelia

Gerald: Let’s not forget. This benevolent king started out as a pretty bad guy. Boccanegra literally means black mouth – call him Blackbeard and you get the idea. He was a vicious killer, and he was, in effect, tricked into becoming Doge because he thought he’d be able to turn an old illicit love affair into a politically sanctioned marriage. In his choice of this piece for our opera, Domingo once again finds resonance with today’s headlines. With his last breath, Boccanegra is still pleading for reconciliation with his enemies, and we love him because he is finally fighting the good fight.

Georja: Another aria which must be mentioned is when Secco as Adorno is being torn apart, confused by his deep love for Amelia and his deep hatred for the murderer of his father. As an actor as well as a singer, Secco portrays the inner conflicts and contrasting feelings which arise in him from moment to moment.

Stefano Secco as Gabriele Adorno

Gerald: I thought Secco’s aria, alone on the stage, staggering from doubt and worry, was a melodic high point. Unaccountably, Verdi gave his leading man no conventional arias in this dark opera. Boccanegra is always contending with his powerful male opponents, consoling his tormented daughter, or addressing the chorus as council or mob. Domingo justifiably steals all these scenes. But Secco, in his LA Opera debut, gets this set-piece all to himself. Gavanelli, Kowaljow, and Martinez also get their chances to deliver powerful solos. They are all spectacular.

Georja: The production is top notch. With conductor James Conlon, we are so accustomed to the perfection of the orchestra. Same with Grant Gershon, chorus master and the wonderful LA Opera chorus. Boccanegra is produced in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The director is Elijah Moshinsky, known for staged productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and especially the Royal Opera and for directing many classics for TV.

Vitalij Kowaljow as Jacopo Fiesco

Gerald: The chorus of an opera is its soul. We can never praise our own LA Opera chorus enough. As in so many productions we’ve seen them in, in Simon Boccanegra they are a starring character in their own right. I mentioned previously Domingo’s counterpoint with them, when they play alternately the Council of Genoa and the boisterous plebian street fighters. Under Gershon’s direction, they spar with the Doge, presenting a mellifluous tone and a powerful force.

Georja: There is only one moment in the production that doesn’t seem completely fulfilled – when Boccanegra discovers the corpse of his love, in shadow, it is clearly a mannequin, and the reaction is more subdued than one might expect. I would have liked to see more outrage and sorrow in that one moment. However this is quickly passed by and greatly overshadowed by the innumerable thrilling scenes and moments which follow.

Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi

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Published on Feb 12, 2012

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