Let me cut right to the chase: we hated the production of Simon Boccanegra (costumes, sets, and staging). We loved everything else: the story, the music, the singing, and, above all, the acting.
Last night we went to the joint Covent Garden-Lyric Opera production of Verdi’s 1856 open, Simon Boccanegra, the first production off our 2012-2013 Lyric Opera season. We were stunned to see so many empty seats in the orchestra section—at least one-third. I can’t imagine that so many people come in from the East Coast. Has Lyric really lost that many subscribers? Are Lyric goers so uninterested in any Italian opera other than Aida, La Traviata, La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly?
The last time we heard Simon Boccanegra at Lyric was in 1995. I may have heard it in 1979—if so, I have no recollection of it. Those are gaps of 17 years and 16 years, respectively. Lyric is not exactly over-producing Boccanegra. The work is musically and dramatically sophisticated. Indeed, in many ways it’s more like a 20th century opera than nearly anything else written by Verdi.
It’s a prose work rather than a verse one. It has very few arias and, indeed, few set pieces of any kind. The duets, trios, and other ensemble sections are structured as dialogues, essential to the drama. The first act, for example, is composed of a soprano opera, duets for soprano and bass, soprano and tenor, soprano and baritone, and an ensemble piece. While not the continuous melody of Wagner and very clearly lyrical in nature, one does not exactly go out humming the themes.
Why did this production have such large, bare, drab sets? Vertical lines created artificial perspective but on the largely bare sets what purpose did they serve? Why was nearly everyone wearing muumuus? Why ensure that the soprano wears dresses that fade into the background?
Why, oh why, does Lyric have such clumsy crowd scenes? The mass of the chorus rushes on to the set, stands there, and sings. Why were women in the chorus brandishing swords? Between the swords and the shapeless dresses I was reminded a bit of the Two of Swords in the Rider-Waite tarot deck.
What the production lack was more than made up by the music—the music itself, the singing, and the orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis has never struck a better balance between orchestra and voices at Lyric. of the excellent principles soprano Crassimira Stoyanova was clearly the standout but this was truly an ensemble production: each of the principles was wonderful. I don’t think we’ve heard Frank Lopardo any better, particularly in his duets with Stoyanova—a beautiful, perfect blend.
I don’t know that I have the words for Thomas Hampson’s magisterial performance as Simon. It was a near-perfect example of the work of a great singing actor. His ability to adapt his voice from young “corsair” to older statesman to man taking his last breaths was remarkable to behold.
There are still two performances left. It’s likely to be fifteen years or more before Lyric gets another Simon Boccanegra. If Lyric is still around in 15 years.
The best advice for subscribers heading to the Civic Opera House between now and Nov. 9 is to ignore “Boccanegra’s” flaws and simply give themselves over to the magnificence of the work’s greatest scenes (which contain some of the mature Verdi’s finest dramatic music), along with the strong singing to be heard in Lyric’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production.
Lyric has always harbored an unusual fondness for the work, having presented it on six separate occasions over its 58-year history, during which Tito Gobbi, Piero Cappuccilli and Sherrill Milnes have set their stamp on the troubled Doge of Genoa.
In the latest revival, the vocal strengths are well distributed from top to bottom of a cast that includes American baritone Thomas Hampson as Boccanegra, the superb Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as his rival, Jacopo Fiesco, and the exciting Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova as his daughter, Amelia Grimaldi, in her Lyric debut.
Chicago producers and audiences love this otherwise too little heard work. Although this is Lyric’s first staging in 17 years, it’s the company’s seventh outing with this opera, which tells of an early Renaissance pirate turned Doge of Genoa, guilt-ridden by his checkered love life and parental irresponsibility. Since 1959, Tito Gobbi took the title role for three runs (and even directed), and Piero Cappuccilli, Sherrill Milnes and Alexandre Agache followed, with such other renowned singers as Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi, Ruggerio Raimondi, Martina Arroyo and Kiri Te Kanawa taking other key parts here.
This time, it’s Thomas Hampson’s turn. At 57, the American baritone is at the height of his acting and characterization powers, even if an unannounced indisposition Monday limited some of his high notes and caused vocal strain at times. This is a dark and inward work, introduced in Venice in 1857 to puzzled response and successfully reworked by Verdi almost a quarter-century later, for La Scala in 1881. At every moment, Hampson makes it clear this is a man struggling with the questions of morality, leadership, aging, service and heartache.
The remarkable Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is Fiesco, Boccanegra’s sworn enemy, the father of the Doge’s dead and disgraced lover, and grandfather of his lost child. Now 63, Furlanetto had to wait until last season to make his Lyric debut, as a highly praised Boris Godunov. Furlanetto alone invests so much humanity into his part — not to mention strength and warmth throughout its wide range — that the idea that Verdi is only about blood vengeance is pushed far out of mind. Furlanetto’s performance as he handles the old man’s many changing moods and encounters is like a great master class.
Muti introduced Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova to Chicago in his remarkable CSO “Otello” two seasons back. As Maria/Amelia, Stoyanova was vocally admirable at every turn but lacked the theatrical abilities of her male elders. American tenor Frank Lopardo gave one of his finest Lyric performances as Adorno, Amelia’s suitor, and Simon’s eventual ally and successor.
A bigger breakout came from former Ryan Center baritone Quinn Kelsey as Paolo, the courtier who is so purely bad that even he seems puzzled as to why. Kelsey’s voice, color and phrasing were clear, dark and exciting. Furlanetto told Opera News recently that Kelsey could become the Verdi baritone we’ve been waiting for for years. Current Ryan members bass Evan Boyer, tenor Bernard Holcomb and mezzo J’nai Bridges acquitted themselves admirably, as did the Lyric Chorus under its new chorus master Martin Wright, whose direction toward subtlety matched that of the singers in their many ensembles.
Music director Andrew Davis had his best evening in the Italian repertoire that I’ve heard, and in a work without big, known “numbers,” the orchestra and its depiction of mood and coastal geography is key. Director Elijah Moshinsky was at his best here, too, staging as if we are witnesses to an actual human drama. Michael Yeargan’s Covent Garden sets, almost historic by now, appear to have been buffed back into freshness, as have Peter J. Hall’s period costumes, out of a Genovese painting. Duane Schuler’s lighting, re-created by Jason Brown, made darkness illuminating.
This is Verdi for the ages. So leave prejudices and questions at home and turn yourself over to a chapter in the story of music.
Mr. Patner’s reaction to the production is closer to mine than Mr. Von Rhein’s.