Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Perform Simon Boccanegra

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Giuseppe Verdi, by Giovanni Boldini
Giuseppe Verdi, by Giovanni Boldini

Simon Boccanegra
by Giuseppe Verdi

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine conducting

Thursday, January 29, 8 pm, Saturday, January 31, 8 pm, Tuesday, February 3, 8 pm

José Van Dam, bass-baritone (Simon Boccanegra)
Barbara Frittoli, soprano (Amelia Grimaldi)
Marcello Giordani, tenor (Gabriele Adorno)
James Morris, bass-baritone (Jacopo Fiesco)
Nicola Alaimo, baritone (Paolo Albiani)
Raymond Aceto, bass (Pietro)
Garrett Sorenson, tenor (a Captain)
Diane Droste, mezzo-soprano (Amelia’s Maidservant)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor

Strained relations. Wagner’s Ring cycle was once famously described (by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I believe) as a family quarrel. At least it’s more than that, which might not be true of the plot to Verdi’s troubled, vexing, and beautiful Simon Boccanegra. Like several other operas in the Verdi canon, it comes to us as a late revision of a failed early work. Yet even though the revision called upon the considerable talents of Arrigo Boito, who coaxed the aged composer to write Falstaff and Otello by supplying him with irresistible words, Boccanegra is indecipherable. If your child can solve Rubik’s cube, give him this story to  untwist. More of that anon.

Clearly James Levine wanted to make a case for the music first and foremost when he scheduled three concert performances with the Boston Symphony at the end of January. Thanks to his iron-clad connections at the Met, he drew a starry cast to town. Boccanegra became the hottest ticket of the winter. Yet someone should have noticed that Jose Van Dam, at 68, is too old for the title role, and that James Morris, our most famous Wotan, is no longer steady of voice. In fact, the whole male lineup looked depressingly old without wigs and makeup, reminding me of retired bankers who missed their bailout. Only the lustrous Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli added a touch of youth and color. Even if the males had been cubs instead of gray panthers, Verdi supplies only a single prominent female role. Vocally the music is pulled down to the range of its four bass and baritone roles. (A suitable comparison would be Don Carlo, but despite its low center of gravity, that is a far more scintillating and gripping opera.) There is also a distinct lack of popular arias to catch the ear. The two lovers each have one, but Boccanegra himself doesn’t, nor do his opponents in love and politics, who turn out to be a varying and confusing lot.

This is an unsalvageable plot. Its substance revolves around intrigue between Guelphs and Ghibellines in medieval Genoa. Assuming the ideal listener arrives glowing with excited anticipation to find out which political party wins, the basic story is inexplicable. Operatic emotions are thrown into a bag and drawn out like Scrabble tiles. For example, at any given moment the tenor character, Gabriele Adorno, is either leading a patrician revolt against Boccanegra, swearing an oath to kill him, begging his forgiveness, blessing his nobility, joining his cause, asking for his daughter’s hand, plotting behind Boccanegra’s back for said daughter, or feeling utterly confused. One sympathizes. Every other character is ensnared in a sticky web. Add to this the unsavory hint of incest directed at Boccanegra by his enemies, plus absurd machinations such as the one whereby Paolo, one of the mix-and-match villains, is tricked into cursing himself (an act that horrifies him but made me yawn), and you see why this opera depends so heavily on its music.

Is the music glorious?  In many ways, yes. The most famous sequence, a massive ensemble known as the Council Chamber scene, brings a stirring climax in the middle. But to my ears, the second half, which is too occupied with Boccanegra’s slow death by poisoning (slow means an entire act), drags out twists and turns that we have long ago lost interest in. In addition, no one actually does anything. Most of the significant actions take place offstage or in the past. I’ve been to cocktail parties where people had more physical impact on one another. Apparently a good portion of the BSO audience agreed, since there were sizeable defections at the second intermission as the clock crept toward eleven. Still, James Levine made the best possible case for the orchestral part, which was propulsive, supple, and constantly interesting in his hands. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was completely admirable as it vocally shifted shape to form various factions of the crowds that surge in and out of the political plot.

At my performance, the second of the three, James Morris pulled out due to vocal indisposition, replaced by the excellent Raymond Aceto, who had previously sung the minor role of Pietro. I don’t want to imply that the senior soloists were ready for assisted living. Van Dam has plenty of power and dramatic force left in his voice, even if it no longer shines with charisma. Marcello Giordano has risen in importance at the Met as the Italian tenor of choice in the post-Pavarotti era, and he sang with exemplary passion, never bawling, sobbing, or shouting. Frittoli was also a model of style, although she lacks the lightness of voice to suggest youth, and as a friend pointed out, she didn’t attempt a trill at one climactic moment. On the whole, this was a vocally satisfying performance from top to bottom. The singers felt too distant, however, placed as they were behind the orchestra.

Levine’s ventures into concert opera have been the highlight of his tenure at the BSO, and I hope they never end. Nor should Boccanegra be overlooked, despite its crazy-quilt plot.  I came out into the blistering cold of Huntington Avenue feeling a bit exhausted and bored, however. It wasn’t just the semi-migraine induced by reading three hours of supertitles that made no sense. A great opera depends on its own strange alchemy, and Boccanegra’s proportion of gold to lead is perhaps not quite gleaming enough.

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