Thursday, September 11, 2008

Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, 9/9/08, San Francisco Opera

Primed on two dozen Rigolettos, my first-time Boccanegra had me thinking, This guy really has a hangup about the father-daughter thing. For good cause, too - the composer lost a daughter, son and wife to disease, all at a shot. It's a wonder he didn't do King Lear, too (and yes, he was considering it).

The more direct connection to Boccanegra is Il Trovatore, both of them inspired by the work of Spanish playwright Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, both sporting massively convoluted plots. Behold the young pirate Boccanegra swinging about the piazza of his lover's house spouting exposition: "Yes, Maria is my lover, but I cannot see her because she is of high station and I but a lowly buccaneer, but I am running for doge so that someday I may see her, and she did bear me a daughter who I managed to lose somewhere but that's another story and... Maria is dead? Egad!" Even with supertitles, this thing is harder to track than a greased pig on steroids.

As with much of Verdi, the opera is really about power, and the master corrals his forces with aplomb, a city-feud between plebeians and patricians with the doge - the 25-years-older Boccanegra - at the center, trying to keep some peace.

25 years after its initial lukewarm reception in 1857, Verdi updated the opera, adding some stunning musical strokes to the final scene of Act I, in which the city'ss factions are all gathered in the council chambers, brawling like the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story. One chorus passage ends abruptly, leaving the rediscovered daughter, Amelia, alone with a brilliant trilling cadenza. The coda - in which Boccanegra tricks his suspect lieutenant Paolo into cursing himself - is preceded by powerful bursts of brass that crash to a halt on the edge of a quick-muted gong. (The scene also displays all the hurly-burly energy that may be extracted from chorus members who can actually act.)
The title role offers no arias, laying the focus on acting - a demand filled brilliantly by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is utterly possessed by his character. His confrontation with Paolo (the curse yet another nod to Rigoletto), a drilling recitative spooked by woodwinds, is absolutely chilling.
Other chills are offered by Vitalij Kowaljow, who delivers awesome bass resonances as Maria's vengeful father Fiesco. The passion comes from tenor Marcus Haddock as Amelia's rebel lover Gabriele, especially in the second-act betrayal aria, "Sento avvampar nell'anima" (mistaking Boccanegra as Amelia's lover, hello again Rigoletto), and from baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Paolo, who did everything but telepathically set the furniture ablaze in his own vengeful recitative at the opening of Act II. (Genoa is a vengeful place!)
As our only female lead in this Genovese frathouse, soprano Ana Maria Martinez gives Amelia the fine touches: artful decrescendos and lovely high pianos. The reunion cabaletta between Boccanegra and Amelia, "Figlia! a tal nome io palpito," is a delicious creme brulee of vocalizing.
Boccanegra's palace is outfitted with massive columns, adapted by Michael Yeargen from a 1991 Covent Garden production. My personal favorite among Peter J. Hall's 14th-century costumes is Gabriele's first-act ensemble, a gray cloak over a tan leather vest with beige underpinnings. Donald Runnicles directed his orchestra and singers with propulsive energy, bringing a resounding muscularity from the brass. And give extra credit to stage director David Edwards, who instilled some plausibility in a sometimes-preposterous libretto.
Trivia: During his 1881 rewrite, Verdi made use of librettist Arrigo Boito, who would soon after collaborate with him on Otello. Amelia was previously sung at SFO by Tebaldi, Te Kanawa and Vaness ('56, '75, '01), Fiesco by Pinza, Tozzi and Ramey ('41, '60, '01) and the title role by Tito Gobbi in '60.
Unintentional Laugh Zone: The populace shifted loyalties like a ball at a tennis match. Late in Act II, as yet another acclamation of "Viva Boccanegra!" sounded from backstage, the audience just had to laugh. Early in Act II, Paolo placed a pitcher of poisoned water in the doge's chambers. It sat there and sat there for frickin' ever. When Boccanegra announced, "My throat is parched," the patrons let out with a knowing titter.
Info: Through Sept. 27, War Memorial Opera House,, 415/864-3330.
Photos: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Boccanegra, Marcus Haddock as Gabriele.

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