Simon Boccanegra


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.

Boccanegra
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.

Boccanegra

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.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.