Simon Boccanegra: I Can Still Sing, But I Never Could Fence Properly

Verdi-Piavo/Boito, Simon Boccanegra.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/22/10.  Conducted by James Levine. Placido Domingo (Boccanegra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia), Marcello Giordani (Adorno), James Morris (Fiesco), Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo). Directed by Peter McClintock after a production by  Giancarlo del Monaco.

Oh, better far to live and die
Under this baritone’s flag I fly,
Than sing an odd modulating part,
With an aging voice if a tenor’s heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where other tenors transpose too;
But I don’t care which fach I sing,
I’ll live reborn as a Baritone King.

Apologies to G&S.  (I hasten to remind you that Simon Boccanegra was a semi-pirate before becoming Doge.  You don’t know how hard it was to not write a lot of pirate jokes into this review, mateys.)

This opera is pure gold, y’all.  Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the score is absolute perfection from start to finish. And maybe it’s partly because I’m so partial to this period of Verdi but this was one of the most musically satisfying performances I’ve seen at the Met in a while.  Sure, there are some perplexing things (like “age”) happening to the voice of our dear Placido Domingo, which I will discuss!  And the staging is pretty as a picture, a picture painted many centuries ago, and about as mobile as a painting too (coming from me, this is not a compliment)!  And yet I highly recommend.

Let’s start off with the most important thing, and that would be James Levine.  When I see him conduct like he did last night I feel that most of the time I am insufficiently appreciative of his skill, because it was awesome.  But I honestly haven’t heard him conduct a performance this majestic, this finely colored, this exciting in a while.  There are a few little orchestral interludes that ended up being a little conductor-showy–I swear part of the intro to Amelia’s aria was sounding like a Klangfarbenmelodie–but all to fantastic effect.

Adrianne Pieczonka sang Amelia, the only female role in the opera.  She had a slightly iffy start, the entrance aria doesn’t sit in the prettiest part of her voice (an aria Krassimira Stoyanova hits out of the park, actually her Amelia is generally fantastic).  But after the aria Pieczonka was fantastically consistent.  By which I mean, musically perfectly precise, refined, and controlled.  That’s not something you hear in this rep very often.  Her voice itself is very lyric, clear, and even in color and yet big, projecting marvelously, an interesting combination that makes me think she would be good as the Elisabeth of your choice (Carlos or Tannhäuser).  Really gorgeous, I would love to hear her more at the Met.  Get on that, Casting Department!

She was somewhat oddly matched with the infuriatingly inconsistent Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno.  He’s got something that not many tenors have, a certain sound and fearlessness that makes things work in an exciting way.  But his voice can turn sour on occasion, and next to a singer as tasteful as Pieczonka he sounds somewhat musically sloppy and coarse, she somewhat too restrained (JJ in the Post referred to her as “primly musical,” which is harsh but also true).  But mostly it was a good night for him, this role a much better fit for his unsubtle style than most–Adorno is such a hothead–than, well, Faust in Damnation de Faust.

In what often resembled Senior Night onstage, James Morris as Fiesco had the unenviable effect of making Placido Domingo (see below) sound young.  I realize in years he is somewhat fewer, but all those Wotans have had their costs.  He has gravitas, yes, there’s a lot of sound left too, but it’s wobbly, and his low notes have deserted him more or less completely.  He’s not quite in Ramey territory yet, but approaching it (look behind you, you may see a hill).  Also, the sword fight between him and Placido in the Prologue was rather pathetic, I’m not sure if this was due to a lot of arthritis or insufficient rehearsal time or what, but it did not live up to the ferocity of the score in any way.
OK, now onto Placido Domingo.  Let’s forget about the questionable management of opera companies and conducting for a moment.  Miraculously, at his age and in this tessitura, he still sounds like Placido Domingo, more or less.  And that would be a tenor sound.  Ironically, he may have finally proven to all those critics who said he’s a baritone that he’s been a tenor all along (a criticism whose logic I fail to see–he was a baritone who had a very long, very healthy career as one of the best tenors ever? really???).  In case this isn’t already clear, I LOVE Placido Domingo.  I have heard lots of his recordings, if I need a recording of an opera and one by him is available and the thing isn’t in German I will almost always pick him, I’m not a completist because generally I’m not like that and besides being a Domingo completist would be IMPOSSIBLE, but I’m very familiar with what his voice sounded like in his prime.

Which makes seeing him in this opera just a little surreal at times.  Because he is, inarguably, still Placido Domingo, and still sounds like it.  But the age and tessitura disguise him a bit, like watching Sean Connery in a movie today after having seen lots of James Bonds.  But there’s no way he sounds like a baritone, he sounds like Placido Domingo singing low, and while there is a certain loss of that Verdi baritone sound in this opera, there’s a lot of gain because it is Placido-freaking-Domingo.  The very audible prompter did have a big job last night (not the first time), but still, he gets the nobility and generosity of this character just right, even with the occasional wobble.

No whining about the plot, folks, sure, it’s too complicated and has some holes but I actually like it, and find it much more involving than many other works of similar convolution, maybe because the music is so good.

I feel obliged to comment on the production, but don’t have much to say about it.  It is pretty, the prologue and Council Chamber especially so.  It has a few functional issues, namely sometimes it’s a little creaky in the most literal sense and the offstage chorus behind the Council Chamber isn’t the most audible.  The statue that is pulled down in the Prologue is a silly-looking effect (apparently the Genoese equip their statues with hinges for smooth toppling and removal).  The Act 3 set is set very far upstage in a way that I believe facilitates a faster scene change but seems like a slightly spiteful screwing of those of us who are already sitting pretty far from the stage.  The Personenregie wasn’t out to make any statements, the only interesting thing that happens is in the last act, when Fiesco sits in Simon’s chair, which actually is a good kind of point.  If you want a fancypants Regie Boccanegra it does exist on the YouTubes, and looks intriguing.

So yeah, go if you can, you won’t regret it.

Next: A plane carrying a commedia dell’arte troupe crashes on a tropical island inhabited only by a lamenting woman, some unhelpful nymphs chanting mysterious numbers, and a cloud of smoke with a bad attitude.   Let us now say thanks that the prima of Ariadne auf Naxos does not fall on the same night as that of Lost.

I won’t be seeing Il Mondo della Luna at Gotham Chamber Opera, though appears to be something right up my alley it is sold out and I failed to remember to buy a ticket earlier.  (Gotham Chamber Opera!  Call me!  I will write about it!  Not that you seem to have any problems selling tickets, but, well, I’m totally an opster!)

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Je vais marcher dans votre co-production

La Fille du Régiment, Met Opera, 4/21/08. Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli et. al. Marco Armiliato.

Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment is an obsession-filled story of a twisted nuclear family. Only when Marie has shed her fractured paternal attachment with the regiment and reluctantly conformed to a traditional model of feminine conduct can she be united with her love, Tonio, who must in turn trade his lederhosen for a uniform to prove his masculinity. Don’t make me tell you about the tank.

Just kidding. Mostly. Been reading some Freud recently; it gets to you.

This production is a hoot. It kept coming very close to the line of Too Much, but never really crossed it.

I liked Natalie Dessay’s Marie a lot more than I liked her Lucia (not reviewed here because I saw the dress rehearsal). Her Marie is a little like a cartoon character, mixed with a slightly mystifying dose of Olympia and occasionally capable of brief introspection. Her voice is still razor-like and somewhat vinegary, but it suits this role and her interpretation of it precisely. Her middle voice had something of a glow to it that I didn’t hear in her Lucia, and her manic presence is also more at home as Marie than as Lucia (where she was hopelessly muted until the Mad Scene). “Forceful” would perhaps describe her voice, but, well, Marie is forceful too. The coloratura is so integrated with the stage action, it’s both funny and entirely verisimilar in an operatic way.

My appreciation of this opera will probably be forever hampered by my utter ambivalence about the 9 or however many high C’s that take up residence in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis.” I have nothing but praise for Senor Flórez’s panache in singing them, and recognize that it’s an amazing feat, it’s just not my preferred mode of vocal athleticism. And I don’t find the music itself of this number very interesting. Yes, he sang it twice, it was pretty great the second time too, I’m sure I just saw vocal history but give me the regiment song or the Act II trio, or something with lots of coloratura, or whatever. Bwah. Sorry.

But I love love love Juan Diego Flórez. He’s got a lot more than the high C’s, namely charm and style. The slow parts were beautiful, and the cute parts totally cute. He’s funny without forcing anything.

I think Alessandro Corbelli has somewhat more than the amount of voice required of your average buffo but somewhat less than would be required by most other operatic roles. Tonight, at least, he sounded somewhat small and not quite boomy enough. He’s very amusing and his French is fine, though. Felicity Palmer was, as usual, both hilarious and vocally authoritative as the Marquise, nice piano playing too (and re Maury’s question: her piano bit sounded vaguely like Act III of Wozzeck to me). Marian Seldes didn’t steal the show as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, which I think is a good thing. She did make it pretty funny though, including a recurring joke about a bobsled team that made wonderfully little sense.

They all sell the thing, perhaps a little too well. There isn’t a lot of time to breathe. Sometimes the production feels like a slightly overoiled machine. Donizetti comedy is goofy but lovable, without the spicy touch of the surreal that can invade Rossini opera buffa. To be the truly anarchic experience this sucker wants to be, it could use a few more touches of interpolated Wacky to take it out of the “mildly zany” (pace Maury) and into the “totally weird” (though a little bobsled joke goes a long way), or it needs to take the piece as it is and play it a little more straight. It feels like they’re going to squeeze the opera too hard and it’s going to break, though it never quite happens. The emotional scale is a little too big, they want to be able to be touching and wacky at the same time but the gear shifts don’t happen quickly or completely enough and you end up on a fence.

These sell-out-before-anyone-has-seen-it productions bother me. I don’t think it’s been overhyped exactly, it just seems like it has been ordained a hit regardless of its actual quality. Like the encore, it seems somewhat planned out and calculated when it could use some spontaneity. It’s symptomatic of the gains and the losses you get when you import or co-produce something with other houses (in this case, two others–ROH and the Wiener Staatsoper). It arrives battle-tested but maybe just a little bit shrink-wrapped.

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Bye Bye Parsifal

I have no words, other than “Parsifal-Bye Bye Birdie Mashup.” Just watch it.

Sample comments from the YouTubes: “This is awesome.” “This is so wrong.” Both are true.

ETA: Credit where it’s due, I got this from the Parsifal issue of Opera Quarterly.

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