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Verdi: Simon Boccanegra / Domingo, Poplavskaya, Pappano, Royal Opera

Release Date: 01/11/2011 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 17825  
Composer:  Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Ferruccio FurlanettoJoseph CallejaMarina PoplavskayaPlacido Domingo,   ... 
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden OrchestraRoyal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

• All Region
• Sung in Italian
• Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish

VERDI Simon Boccanegra Antonio Pappano, cond; Plácido Domingo ( Simon Boccanegra ); Marina Poplavskaya ( Amelia Grimaldi ); Joseph Calleja ( Gabriele Adorno ); Ferruccio Furlanetto ( Jacopo Fiesco ); Jonathan Summers ( Paolo Read more Albiani ); Lukas Jakobski ( Pietro ); Royal Op House Ch & O EMI 50999 9 17825 9 5 (2 DVDs: 171:00) Live: Covent Garden 7/2, 5, & 13/2010

Courageous audacity or foolhardiness? The question arises when, as happens here, the world’s most famous tenor chooses in the twilight of his career to take on one of the most demanding baritone roles in the operatic repertoire. Granted, this is not Plácido Domingo’s first venture into that range, having previously recorded Rossini’s Figaro in the studio, but it is the first such role he has assayed live on stage. Is the gamble a success or failure?

The answer to each question is: both. At age 69 Plácido Domingo remains a vocal miracle, as this release attests. His voice is remarkably intact, in much better shape than the sorry Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur I heard him offer at the Met two years ago, at which point I thought it finally was time for him to hang up his cleats. After some slight unsteadiness in the prologue, he finds his wonted focus and sings with a richness of tone and assurance that must remain the envy of rivals half his age, though of course here he does not have to tackle a tenor’s high notes. Just as important, he is never just a singer, but a true artist, ever expressive and alive to his text, always inflecting its nuances. Alas, there’s just one problem, and that a major one: Domingo sounds exactly like what he is, a tenor singing a role out of his proper range. He does not resemble anything like a dark baritone, and the result is simply not Boccanegra, neither the character nor the opera. In the extras on this DVD stage director Elijah Moshinsky asserts of Domingo that “He will not sing it [Simon] as a baritone, and he will not sing it as a tenor; he will sing it as Plácido Domingo”—a statement that does not exactly inspire confidence in what is to come. The experiment remains a kind of one-off stunt, fascinating to encounter a single time but not of permanent interest. In short, if your focus is on Domingo, you will definitely want this release; but if your concern is for a performance of Boccanegra , you will pass it by.

As for the rest of the production—in case anyone is paying attention to that as well—it is a mixed bag. This is the second version of Elijah Moshinsky’s staging at Covent Garden to make it to video (the 1991 Solti version on Decca was reviewed by Colin Clarke in Fanfare 31: 6) and for me its revamped pseudo-traditionalism remains as unattractive as before. The sets and costumes are drably stylized, stripped-down versions of the opulence of a Renaissance court rather than the genuine article. It also is marred with such misconceived touches as the modern graffiti scrawled on building walls in the Prologue and intrusive soldiers in modern garb overhearing what should be secret meetings of Paolo Albiani with Jacopo Fiesco and Gabriele Adorno in act II.

Among the singers other than Domingo, laurels go to Joseph Calleja, a worthy successor to Domingo himself in the role of Gabriele. Evenly and securely produced, with a quick vibrato that adds frisson and color, his voice is paradoxically most distinctive in the lower register, where it has a plangency strongly reminiscent of Jussi Björling, and Calleja ably exploits that to convey Gabriele’s divided allegiances and correspondingly shifting passions. Next comes Marina Poplavskaya as Amelia Grimaldi, whose Desdemona I praised in a review of Otello in 34:1. Here my impression is marginally less favorable; all the virtues of the voice I previously noted are still present, and this time she does not tire as the performance progresses, but her characterization here, both vocally and histrionically, is a bit stilted and wooden, though overall she is competitive with her best rivals. Unfortunately, the bottom drops out of the performance with the lower-register voices, as Ferruccio Furlanetto and Jonathan Summers, both accomplished veterans, now show considerable wear on their once formidable vocal treads, the former with a pronounced wobble and hollowness and the latter with a forced, barked dryness. Lukas Jakobski is a competent Pietro. As the most accomplished Verdi conductor of his generation, Antonio Pappano has the score fully in hand; he conducts with lyricism, power, vitality, and passion, producing a warm, burnished sound, and so the orchestra and chorus make first-rate contributions.

The sound quality is excellent, the camerawork free from fussiness. Extras include rehearsal sequences with producer Elijah Moshinsky discussing his conception of the opera, a “Working with Plácido Domingo” puff piece, and—quite annoyingly—gratuitous intrusions between each act of conductor Antonio Pappano walking into the pit from backstage, offering needless comments on what the viewer is about to see. Perhaps because of the extras, the performance is on two DVDs rather than one, a needless waste of money and material.

For an opera that is often considered to lack the appeal of Verdi’s most popular works, Boccanegra has enjoyed a surprising number of DVD releases, most of which have been reviewed in Fanfare . I would immediately narrow the choice down to two: the 1995 Metropolitan Opera production on DG, and the 1976 Italian production from Japan on VAI. The former was tepidly recommended by Bob Rose in 26:4; while I agree with his criticisms of James Levine’s conducting, unlike him I have unreservedly favorable opinions of the singing by all the principals, with Domingo in his proper Fach as a glorious Gabriele, first-rate contributions from Kiri Te Kanawa as Amelia and Robert Lloyd as Fiesco, and Vladimir Chernov bringing to the title role the regal stature and agony of Boris Godunov. The VAI production, not reviewed in these pages, offers a stellar cast of Katia Ricciarelli in her youthful prime as Amelia, the excellent and unjustly neglected Giorgio Merighi as Gabriele, Nicolai Ghiaurov as a stupendous Fiesco for the ages, and Piero Cappuccilli as a vocally secure if decidedly understated Boccanegra, with Oliviero de Fabritiis an experienced veteran at the helm of the NHK Symphony. The film quality is somewhat fuzzy and grainy, and the sets decidedly plain though traditional, but the whole is a reminder of how sorely lacking we are today in Verdian singers of the first rank. As for the alternatives, I will dissent from the praise given by Henry Fogel in 31:1 to the TDK issue of a 2004 production from Vienna headed by Thomas Hampson; the “naturalistic” sets and costumes are simply ugly and the singing of some of the principals (particularly the Gabriele) inferior. Another TDK issue, a 2002 performance from Florence conducted by Claudio Abbado, has virtually nonexistent sets (why even bother issuing it on DVD?) and generally mediocre vocalism. The Arthaus issue from Bologna in 2007 has a disastrous Boccanegra and Fiesco; see the review by Lynn René Bayley in 32:2. The 1998 Glyndebourne production issued on Kultur and conducted by Mark Elder does not get beyond the mediocre at any point. The aforementioned Solti version is solidly cast, but it is the same production I have objected to here, and I prefer the singing in my two top choices in any case. The previous Metropolitan Opera production from 1984, also issued by DG, was discussed by Raymond Tuttle in 32:3; unfortunately it features both Sherrill Milnes and Paul Plishka very much on the vocal down slope of their careers, a mediocre Gabriele, and Levine in an even more rigid mode than in 1995. For those interested in Domingo’s Boccanegra, this version has singing vastly superior to the recently issued 2010 Met production. On CD the two top choices remain, as always, the classic monaural EMI set with Victoria de los Angeles, Giuseppe Campora, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Walter Monachesi, and Gabriele Santini, and the stereo DG version with Mirella Freni, José Carreras, Piero Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Jose van Dam, and Claudio Abbado; while the latter is somewhat stronger in conducting and overall vocal casting and has better sound, my preference is for the former due to the vast superiority of Gobbi over Cappuccilli.

FANFARE: James A. Altena


It was during Verdi’s presence in Paris in 1855 for the production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes that he accepted a commission from the Teatro la Fenice in Venice for the 1856-57 season. He decided on the subject of Simon Boccanegra, based like Il Trovatore on a play by Guttiérrez. It was ideal for Verdi, involving a parent-child relationship and revolutionary politics in which he had always involved himself in occupied Italy. Given the political background of the subject, and despite the action being set in 14 th century Genoa, the censors gave Verdi and his librettist, Piave, a hard time. The composer held out and the opera was premiered on 12 March 1857. It was, in Verdi’s own words “ a greater fiasco than La Traviata”, whose failure could be attributed to casting and was quickly reversed. The critics of the time wrote about the gloomy subject-matter and the lack of easily remembered arias and melodies. A production at Naples went better, but that at La Scala in 1859 was a bigger disaster than Venice. The composer had moved his musical idiom much too far for his audiences and he wrote, The music of Boccanegra is of a kind that does not make its effect immediately. It is very elaborate, written with the most exquisite craftsmanship and needs to be studied in all its details.” Verdi’s regard for his composition, and he was his own sternest critic, meant that although the work fell into neglect, the possibility of revision and revival was never far from his mind. In 1880 he had written nothing substantial since his Requiem in 1874 and no opera since Aida ten years earlier. His publisher, Ricordi, raised the subject of a re-write of Boccanegra. Although in private he was seriously considering Boito’s proposals for an Otello opera, in public he gave the impression that he had hung up his pen. When Ricordi told Verdi that Boito, who was providing him with synopses and suggestions for Otello, would himself revise the libretto, the composer agreed to undertake the task. The secret project, code-named ‘Chocolate’, in fact the future Otello, was put on hold. The revised Simon Boccanegra was a triumph at La Scala on 24 March 1881 and it is in this later form that we know the opera today and which is featured on this recording.

Those who are conversant with Verdi’s opera, but not up to date with the goings-on in the opera world, might look askance at the casting. A tenor singing this title role? Well yes, although not many other so-called tenors would think about it. But, having more or less met every other tenorial challenge in the repertoire, around one hundred and forty roles at the last count, and recorded most of them, he, pushing seventy, has been looking around for new challenges rather than resting his vocal chords. Domingo, like Bergonzi and others, started off as a baritone and in the early nineteen-nineties recorded Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere for DG. However, there is a massive difference between the demands of that lyrical baritone role and the title role in Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s most dramatic. Although he could always lighten his tone for the likes of Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore whilst contemporaneously singing Verdi’s ultimate tenor challenge, Otello, in the heavier roles he undertook Domingo’s voice always had a baritonal hue and strength at the bottom of its range. That said, and whatever its baritonal strengths, Domingo’s voice simply cannot bring the necessary vocal heft to the big dramatic outburst in the Council Chamber scene when Boccanegra seeks to dominate the assembled crowd as he sings Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo (Disc 1 CH.19). Likewise when Boccanegra then circles and causes Paolo to curse Amelia’s abductor, in fact himself (CH.20). This latter, in particular, should send a tingle of fear down ones spine and, at least vocally, it does not although with Domingo’s acting it has its own similar effect. But here is also the paradox in his performance. As an acted portrayal Domingo’s Boccanegra is among the finest on record despite his not have the sheer vocal heft and baritonal depth that Verdi envisaged. Doubtless this owes much to his singing of the role in Berlin, Milan and New York before arriving to sing in London. Add his normal meticulous preparation for any role, and particularly a new one, and the outcome is reflected in his assumption. Domingo conveys the totality of the character in his demeanour and acting and also vocally in the many more lyric pages of the score. Overall, and putting aside the issue of baritone or tenor, Domingo gives a penetrating and convincing interpretation of one of the great Verdi roles.

Among the most lyric parts of the role of Boccanegra are in the two recognition duets: that between the Doge and his daughter, and no composer does father – daughter duets better than Verdi (Disc 1 CH.13), and that with Fiesco in the final act (Disc 2 CH.14). Verdi used to spend every winter in Genoa and in this production would hardly recognise the venue that is so beautifully characterised in the music of the prelude to Act One and Amelia’s aria that follows (Disc 1 CHs.8-9). The rather large spaces militate against the poignant intimacy of the first of those duets and where the two realise their relationship. In the second duet with his daughter in act two, when Amelia pleads for clemency for Adorno, a sworn enemy of Boccanegra, Domingo is a drawback although, as he melts before her pleas, the lyricism becomes dominant. As Amelia, Marina Poplavskaya, Elisabetta in the recently issued DVD of the 2008 performances of Don Carlo, is an appealing stage presence, good actress and secure vocalist. If she doesn’t match Kiri Te Kanawa, who I saw in an earlier production in the early 1970s and where the sea was more appropriately present in the prelude to Act One, few others have done so since. In those performances I was lucky enough to see the non-pareil Boris Christoff as Fiesco, the only Verdi role apart from Philip in Visconti’s Don Carlo in which the great Bulgarian was cast at Covent Garden, and also Ruggero Raimondi. On this occasion Ferruccio Furlanetto matches neither of them, nor is he secure vocally in the prologue aria Il lacerato spirito (Disc 1 CH.4) as he was as Philip in the 2008 Don Carlo recording. He does improve in sonority and steadiness and is more impressive in Act Two as he faces the evil Paolo (Disc 2 CH.3) and in the confrontation and reconciliation with the dying Boccanegra in the final act (Disc 2 CHs. 11-18). As Amelia’s lover, Gabriele Adorno, Joseph Calleja sings with virile expressive lyric tenor tone. His rather chunky appearance militates against the portrayal of the ideal ardent lover. Jonathan Summers as the scheming and lusting Paolo, who poisons Simon, rather over-eggs the cake with an excess of eye-bulging to go with his rather dry tone.

The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra under Antonio Pappano deservedly share the limelight with Domingo, the conductor seeming to have a natural flair for Verdi’s drama with a fine balance between the lyric and more dramatic parts.

The accompanying leaflet has an essay by Anthony Alabaster and a synopsis in English, French and German. The essay titled Citizen Verdi, seeks to draw a link between the composer’s views and involvement in Italian politics and the influence on various operas, particularly this one. Although informative, the space might have been better used for the majority of purchasers by the inclusion of a Chapter Listing and Timings; their absence is, I suggest, a disgrace!; ships and tar come to mind. For readers’ information these are as follows: - Disc 1. Prologue (CHs.2-6); Act One Scene One (Chs.8-15); Act One Scene 2, The Council Chamber scene (CHs. 17-20). Disc 2. Act Two (CHs.2-9); Act Three (CHs.11-18). In between the acts and scenes there are brief behind-curtain views and comments by Pappano. A more extensive bonus of two titles, Working with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky are contained on Disc 1 (CH.7): nearly four minutes and six respectively. The advertising blurb says there is an additional audio function that features introductions to each of the opera's scenes (in English with subtitles); it escaped my somewhat irritated search unless they mean the brief interval visits behind the scenes I refer to above.

-- Robert J Farr, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Ferruccio Furlanetto (Bass), Joseph Calleja (Tenor), Marina Poplavskaya (Soprano),
Placido Domingo (Tenor), Jonathan Summers (Baritone), Lukas Jakobski (Bass)
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857; Italy 

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