Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Peter McClintock
Simon Boccanegra: Dmitri Hvorostosky
Jacopo Fiesco (Andrea Grimaldi): Ferruccio Furlanetto
Maria (Amelia Grimaldi): Barbara Frittoli
Gabriele Adorno: Roberto de Biasio
Paolo: Nicola Alaimo
Although I had missed Placido Domingo's much acclaimed baritone turn as Simon Boccanegra at the Met last year, I had promised myself to catch up with it some other time. This season, the Spanish tenor, who has just celebrated his 70th birthday, is not reprising the role, but Siberian-born baritone Dmitri Hvorostosky is taking it over, which was extremely good news for me and many other opera lovers. With the rest of the cast reading like a best-of among Met’s regulars and Verdi’s glorious music being an irresistible draw any time, everything seemed to urge me to just do it. The tipping point was reached in the wee hours of Thursday morning when my friend Paula e-mailed me asking if I was interested in her ticket as she had decided not to go. I had not planned to go this week, mostly because I had just come back from La Traviata a few hours earlier, but on the other hand, how could I turn down a double dose of Verdi in two days, not to mention helping a friend in need? I could not.
So on Thursday night I was happily back at the Met, incidentally even in the same row. The evening started with a fright because when I opened my program I noticed right away the dreaded insert, which typically means a last-minute cast change. And it was, but not as heart-breaking as it could have been. This time it was popular tenor Ramon Vargas who was ill, allowing newcomer Roberto de Biasio to make his Met debut in the role of Gabriele Adorno, the young man determined to overthrow, possibly kill, the doge Boccanegra because the latter had killed his father. Fair enough, but he unfortunately falls in love with his enemy’s daughter, although at the time nobody knows neither of the family tie, nor, incidentally, that the aristocrat in exile who adopted her is in fact her biological grand-father, himself a sworn enemy of Boccanegra’s because his now deceased daughter bore the doge (then pirate) an illegitimate child. And that is just part of the plot. Confusing? Yes. But do not let that stop you because it will eventually all make sense and the end definitely justifies the means.
With a decidedly convoluted story mixing historical facts, political unrest, family secrets and romantic turmoil, Simon Boccanegra is for sure an opera more in line with Don Carlo or Il Trovatore than La Traviata. It was not a success when it first came out in 1857, and even Verdi reportedly was not happy with it. After the composer and his Otello librettist, Arrigo Boito, carried out extensive revisions more than twenty years later, it slowly became part of the traditional repertoire, although by no means is it one of the most regularly performed works. And what a shame! The score contains some of the most striking music Verdi ever wrote and the conflicted characters are fantastic roles for the right singers to sink their teeth in.
And they sure did on Thursday night. As Simon Boccanegra, Dmitri Hvorostosky was simply superb. From popular former pirate reluctantly turned into hot-headed, if fundamentally decent, doge to fully committed man of peace and forgiveness, Simon Boccanegra embarks on a long, difficult journey through the twenty-five years of his life encompassed within the three hours of the opera. Accordingly, Dmitri Hvorostosky made the most of his rich, deeply nuanced voice and natural, magnetic charisma, giving his complex character a truly Shakespearian grandeur. He may not be a born Italianate baritone, but he brought too much to the part for us to care about mere technical details. Besides, this production already had the perfect Verdi singer in Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. After being a stunning King Philip II in Don Carlo a couple of months ago (I even timed a visit to the Met lobby on the Saturday afternoon of the live broadcast to watch his big scene with the benefit of close-ups), his Fiesco was yet another tragic hero perfectly brought to life by his wide-ranging, fully controlled voice and inconspicuous but spot-on acting.
Facing these two consummate artists was probably a daunting task, but Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli did not let any apprehension show and more than held her own as Maria, the only female character in the opera. As the one over whom everybody fights for very different reasons, she proved worthy of all the attention by letting her voice steadily and elegantly soar, never mind if her gestures seemed a bit forced at times. Her ardent lover, Italian tenor Roberto de Biasio, was making a very promising Met debut, whole-heartedly grabbing the opportunity of a lifetime and singing as if his life (or at least his livelihood) depended on it. His voice had a straightforward, vibrant quality to it and I hope we’ll get to hear him again soon. Another Italian singer making his debut (planned, this time) was baritone Nicola Alaimo as Paolo and, here again, the first impression was totally positive.
Decors and costumes were adequate, if not particularly inspired. The score, on the other hand, was masterfully performed under the expert baton of beloved maestro Levine, who may have received the biggest ovation of the evening. The magnificently dark composition does not contain any instantaneously hummable melodies, but its discreet sophistication beautifully supported the singers’ voices, fittingly emphasizing decisive plot turns and all-consuming emotional peaks. And let’s not keep the suspense any longer: yes, the famous council chamber scene at the end of Act I, featuring the six main characters and the chorus thrown into a stormy, intense confrontation, turned out the undisputed highlight it was expected to be. Mission accomplished! All in all, it was yet another memorable night at the opera. May there be many more.