BoccanegraGiuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2010 | Daniel Barenboim, Federico Tiezzi, Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto , Massimo Cavalletti, Ernesto Panariello, Anja Harteros, Fabio Sartori, Antonello Ceron, Alisa Zinovjeva | Arthaus

Coming just before the mature final works, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra – along with Un Ballo in Maschera, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos – occupy a strange but fascinating hinterland in the career of the composer. Each of the operas, influenced by Verdi’s political involvement in the Risorgimento for the reunification of Italy during the period, are very much concerned with the exercise of power, but they all rely on typically operatic conventions of bel canto and French Grand Opéra in their use of personal tragedies and unlikely twists of fate to highlight the human feelings and weaknesses that lie behind their historical dramas. Written in 1859, but revised by the composer in 1881, Piave’s libretto given an uncredited reworking by Arrigo Boito, Simon Boccanegra is consequently one of the more interesting works from this period, certainly from a musical standpoint. Aware of the flaws in the earlier version of the opera, Verdi can be seen to be striving in its revised form to take it away from the aria/cabaletta conventions towards the more fluid form of music-drama and expression of character that would come to fruition in Otello.

In many ways, the central relationship that defines the tone and the nature of the drama in Simon Boccanegra – a father-daughter relationship that is common in Verdi’s work – is similar to the one played-out in Rigoletto. The mother is dead (in the case of Simon Boccanegra, the wife happening to be one of the daughters of Jocopo Fiesco, the head of a rival Genoa family), and Simon must necessarily keep his relationship with his daughter secret. The difficulties of the political situation, and a desire to keep his daughter (who has been lost only to be conveniently rediscovered 25 years after the opera’s prologue in the house of his rival) out of the complicated political affairs, and some over-protectiveness on his part with regards to her choice of men, affect Boccanegra’s judgements and open up those weak points at a time of vulnerability during his reign as Doge. This kind of situation leads to an old-fashioned but quite literally blood-and-thunder conclusion in Rigoletto, which is the most masterful of Verdi’s work in this style, but while the plot twists and conclusions are no less dramatic in Simon Boccanegra, the musical treatment – certainly in the revised version of the opera at least – is less reliant on convention and closer to the purer and personal mature Verdi style that is deeper, intricate and more nuanced in characterisation.

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It’s perhaps with this in mind that the 2010 production of Simon Boccanegra from La Scala in Milan adopts a kind of hybrid form of traditional staging with some modernist touches that, like the opera’s own make-up, don’t blend together entirely successfully, but are no less fascinating for how they throw their contradictory elements into relief. There’s nothing too jarring or experimental in Federico Tiezzi staging – this is La Scala after all – nothing that distracts from the essential directness of the drama or Barenboim’s conducting of the powerful musical accompaniment that drives it relentlessly forward to a gradually building tragic conclusion that, like Don Carlo, has a sense of the Shakespearean grandeur that the composer was working towards. The staging is perfect in terms of giving a sense of historical 14th century period, the costumes beautifully designed with eye-catching colour schemes that make the divisions between the rival factions clear, the stage itself uncluttered – as Verdi himself specified – evoking mood, character and location as much through the lighting as any props. There are one or two more modern touches of stage technique however – descending trees onto the stage in Act II, a sea of blocks that suggests seismic activity and a huge reproduction of Casper David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer – that suggest that this shouldn’t be taken simple as a straightforward historical drama, but as one that has greater conceptual meaning with regards to the questions of the nature of power and the place of human relationships within it.

This style of presentation works perfectly with the imperfection of the opera itself and the contradictions inherent within these concepts. It would be less than satisfying however if the opera itself didn’t have the kind of casting that it really needs to carry them off and, fortunately, that’s where the real strength of this particular production lies. With the likes of Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Anja Harteros this opera could hardly be in safer hands. Domingo, of course, isn’t the true baritone that is required for the role, but he had all the necessary qualities and experience – as he approached his 70th birthday – to take on the challenge of two significant Verdi baritone roles in 2010 (and it’s probably no coincidence that the other was that complementary character of Rigoletto). His tone of voice, so dramatically attuned, brings a great deal of that necessary flawed humanity to the role of Boccanegra. Ferruccio Furlanetto is of course one of the great Verdi basses of our time and it’s particularly wonderful to watch two such fine performers and voices complement each other so well in this rival roles. Their Act III ‘Piango, perché me parla’ is absolutely stunning. Harteros sings Maria/Amelia well – as you would expect – but I didn’t get the same sense of father/daughter chemistry that existed when Domingo was paired with Marina Poplavskaya for the Covent Garden production of this opera the same year.

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This is a fine, marvellously looking production then, meticulously directed and conducted to bring out the full conceptual nature of the staging and the abstraction of the opera’s music, but it’s the human interpretation that is perhaps the most vital aspect of Simon Boccanegra. It’s not just experience that is required either on the part of the singers, but rather the ability of Domingo, Furlanetto and Harteros to inhabit their characters and give them a deeply human sense of expression through their delivery that ultimately lifts this production above being merely a faithful and appropriate treatment to one that explores the intriguing potential of the opera, with all its fascinating flaws and contradictions.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus presents the production exceptionally well, with a clear, sharp full-HD image, and two sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that are superbly detailed and toned. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a brief essay on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet. A synopsis to explain the historical context of the opera’s setting would have been useful, but I imagine you can find that on line somewhere if necessary. Region-free, BD25, 1080i, subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.