Don't miss it. However...
San Diego Opera
03/26/2005 - March 29, April 01, 04
Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Lado Ataneli (Boccanegra), Anja Harteros (Amelia), Arutjun Kotchinian (Fiesco), Carlo Ventre (Gabriele), James Westman (Paolo), John Marcus Bindel (Pietro), Andrew Ranson (Captain), Ava Baker Liss (Maid to Amelia).
Orchestra and Chorus of San Diego Opera, Edoardo Müller (conductor)
Lofti Mansouri (director)
After the flop of the 1857 première of Simon Boccanegra in Venice, Verdi himself acknowledged that his opera was “too dark and gloomy.” It is not until 1881 that he reworked it with composer-librettist Arrigo Boïto. Verdi revamped the music and Boïto simplified – somewhat – the incoherent libretto but most importantly added the magnificent Council scene in act 1. In spite of Boïto’s efforts, the story line remains murky and the opera never really caught on, suffering from a well-deserved reputation of unintelligibility. Simon Boccanegra only premièred in 1932 at the Met and in 1978 at the Paris Opera. Although declamation has the upper hand over set-piece arias, the work includes some of Verdi’s most eloquent pages, powerful ensembles, and dramatic duets over a flamboyant orchestral fabric.
Lofti Mansouri’s direction, or absence thereof, with people just coming on stage, singing their piece, hardly moving, then exiting, does not even attempt to elicit the convoluted storyline of the opera; but quite frankly, with such an obscure plot, who could blame a scenographer for not adding to the confusion? With Simon Boccanegra, if the spectator is unprepared, surtitles are of no great help. Mansouri chose a safe way out - in this case the best one - by projecting on a screen a short summary of the action at the beginning of each act, thus tastefully providing the audience with some helpful guidelines. However, the Council scene at the end of Act 1 deserved a better treatment: the handling of the large number of people on the stage was unattractive, if not sloppy.
John Coyne designed a conventional set that unexpectedly reached striking elegance in the final scene thanks to Thomas Mun’s dramatic lighting. Brocade costumes borrowed in part from the Santa Fe production were designed by Anna Marie Heinrich.
Musically, German soprano Anja Harteros sings a very interesting Amelia, unquestionably dominating the rest of the cast. The singer, with some delicious floating pianissimi and trills, possesses the dramatic intensity allowing her voice to easily ride over the ensembles and express the various facets of her character. Vocally, baritone Aldo Ataneli did fair justice to the title role (with an exquisite pianissimo top F on “Mia figlia” in Act 1). However, his Simon Boccanegra did not seem to have the commitment and engagement to fully inhabit the charismatic figure of the Genoese Doge. Tenor Carlo Ventre showed laudable musicality and engagement. James Westman was a credible Paolo, and Armenian bass Arutjun Kotchinian was noble and eloquent as Fiesco.
In the pit, conductor Edoardo Müller was greatly responsible for an evening that never took off musically. When he should have set the orchestra on fire, his heavy baton was holding back, hampering the dynamics of the singing, and making the most beautiful pages of the orchestra score sound inappropriately boring.
In spite of the above mentioned reservations, one must be grateful to the San Diego Opera for presenting this unfairly neglected opera. It is not very often in his life – to say the least – that an opera fan has the opportunity to attend a performance of Simon Boccanegra. It is a good enough reason to go and see it.