Sunday, February 7, 2010

Verdi does it again!


Among all of the operatic composers, Verdi is one of my favourites. The characters in a Verdi opera are passionate, powerful and the orchestral background and chorus seethes with emotion. Whether it is the pain of unrequited love as sung by Amneris in Aida or in the case of Simon Boccanegra the unbelievably emotional and beautiful benediction at the close of the opera, a Verdi opera is a treat.

This week, I listened to the HD performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. This piece is rarely performed but is magnificent. James Levine calls it a true masterpiece and one of his favourites and I can see why! The Met brought us into the world of 14th century Genoa with splendid costumes, fresco ed meeting rooms and private chambers with fireplaces. The lighting was glorious with villas in Italy overlooking the sea and the soft warm lighting had one imagining that you were actually there in a cool garden listening. The costumes were outstanding.

The opera was a particular treat because Placido Domingo, was singing as a baritone the role of Simon Boccanegra. Domingo is such a convincing actor that I was quite convinced that he was the wise doge of Genoa. He walked slowly and sang with such emotion as he entered his audience hall with his hand on his sword that I believed I was there.

The opera begins with Boccanegra, a former pirate being declared doge by the people of Genoa. He has had an illegitimate child with the daughter ofJacobo Fiesco, beautifully sung by bass James Morris. The daughter Maria has died and Fiesco confronts Boccanegra. Boccanegra begs for forgiveness but the bitter Fiesco says he will never forgive unless Boccanegra gives him his granddaughter. Boccanegro cannot do this as the little girl was raised in a cottage near Pisa with an elderly woman who died. The little girl disappeared. Fiesco turns his life into one of hatred and a desire for revenge. The opera is a masterpiece in contrasts between revenge, hatred and mercy. Boccanegra, even at this point shows his desire for mercy and reconciliation. The contrast between him and the morose Fiesco is striking. Fiesco retreated and spends most of the opera wearing a grey shroud like a ghost.

We are taken to a beautiful villa where Amelia Grimaldi (Sung by Adrianne Pieczonka) sings of her happiness with her lover Gabriele Adorno (Tenor Marcello Giordani). She is waiting for a visit from the doge, whom Adorno is a sworn enemy. Pieczonka sings the role well, but her acting was terrible. She stood almost at attention as she sang and even in the love scenes would look past Giordani. During the tender moments her face looked tense, and during the emotional and tragic scenes at the end of the opera she was almost laughing. I found I had to close my eyes when she sang rather than be distracted by her stage presence.

We have come to expect so much from opera, in particular the MET. Singers must do much more than sing, we demand that they act the part as well. Acting does not demand the physicality of Natalie Dessay or the power of Karita Mattila (who sang Tosca) but you have to show to the audience that your character is credible.

There were so many outstanding moments in this operatic masterpiece but for me the most moving was at the end, when Boccanegro is poisoned and is dying. His enemy Fiesco appears seated on his throne as a ghost. Boccanegro tells him he can be forgiven as he has found his granddaughter and sings imploringly of forgiveness and mercy. Fiesco's heart breaks and he says that 'he hears the voice of heaven in Boccanegro's words'. I think that is the point of this opera. The voice of heaven, the words of forgiveness and peace are always found on the lips of a former pirate rather than the patricians of the day.

Boccanegro's final aria is a moving (I was crying) hymn to forgiveness and love. His former enemy the young and somewhat brainless Adorno (whose name befits him as he is mainly style and little substance) has reconciled with him, begging his forgiveness. Adorno and Maria kneel beside the dying doge. The scene was marred by Pieczonka's truly terrible acting but the effect was mesmerizing. The doge is dying in his hall of audience surrounded by the patricians and the publicans and the knights as well as the people whom he has let into the hall. He asks Fiesco to make certain that Adorno is the new doge and his dying act creates peace between the warring factions.

Placido Domingo is simply mesmerizing on stage. Here as the wise peaceful doge who wants nothing more than to see his daughter and to bring peace to Italy, you are again moved with not only compassion but love towards this character. Such is the power of Domingo.

Perhaps if Pieczonka had sung with a lesser character than Domingo her deficits would have remained unnoticed but when you sing with a giant you must rise to the occasion.

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