The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Met (in HD) - Boccanegra from Domingo, Levine & Co of mostly weightless quality

Much anticipated has been indeed the debut or series of debuts by Placido Domingo in the part of Doge of Genoa. In fact, I do not quite know in starting out to write, what I should be reviewing here – either Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra or status of Placido Domingo, given how certain powers that be might direct me to write what I do here.

Let me blow my own cover by saying I opted to sit at home with score open instead of report to cinema to re-audition Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production from the Met – after I had shut it off at end of Act One, when PBS aired it around 1996. Placido Domingo played Adorno then - in fact so energetically he somewhat disproportionately upstaged the Doge (Vladimir Chernov). If one sought a Placido Domingo & Co Simon Boccanegra, one could not have departed from what has transpired Saturday much disappointed. However, there is much more here than mere star vehicle for anybody.

James Levine conducted a Boccanegra well tailored to supporting Domingo’s best efforts for the most part. One however gathered little sense from Levine here, as opposed to with his Macbeth recently, what makes Simon Boccanegra in its standard revised 1881 version - Meg and Ira constantly reminded us - special. Except for during obvious place as the last five minutes of the Council Chamber scene, at which doge confronts Paolo, and the easier Act Two, one heard, came across simply a little too much compromise for either Levine’s good or for that of this piece. Numerous specific dynamic markings, proper balancing and interaction making use of getting chorus placed right - and of fanfares during Act One both offstage and on - and even correct spacing between chords (such as to begin Il lacerate spirito) went slightly too often amiss, streamlined or ignored.

Pianissimo marked strings introducing Amelia’s aria sounded heavy, Met flutes replying delicately - marked dynamic level louder than the strings. A nearly perfect cloudless day over harbor of Genoa could have only appeared so scenically; it did not musically. Co-ordination of most onstage ensemble, moments for such worked quite well, other than for the Met chorus sounding more strained than they should. Sympathy for the Verdian idiom Levine certainly has some mastery long by now. With Simon Boccanegra, one seeks hopefully a little more – not alone for what special occasion this has been touted to be. With openings of arias in both the first two scenes of the opera, Levine risked falling under spell of a generic blandness, less offensive for start to Fiesco’s scene in the Prologue than here in 2006 (for which Patrick Summers entirely ignored contrast of dynamics starting out). Summers however achieved good delicacy for opening, by contrast, the sunniest passage of this entire work - the first scene of Act One.

Most consistently good in an uneven supporting cast here was the Paolo Albiani of Stephen Gaertner, taking place of Nicola Alaimo on relatively short notice. He was paired with a Pietro, Richard Bernstein, clearly more sonorous than the Fiesco, it certainly sounded. Gaertner made the conniving, menace, bitterness of the Doge’s mortal foe quite riveting, and good abettor in motivating Domingo to making a real challenge out of his address to Paolo to conclude a long Act One. Adam Herskowitz made forthright, dutiful, but somewhat pitch uneven Captain late in the opera.

Adrianne Pieczonka was the both enraptured and bold sounding Amelia Grimaldi, in most wisely taking on lyrically this part. Vaguely remindful of what Gina Cigna may have said of Callas, one had at times impression with Pieczonka, especially through Act One of hearing at times three voices instead of one – the way in which there lacked facile connection between shifts, registers – such lack audibly so at times Saturday. When especially descending stepwise down a line, all would go smoothly, but once she had to make any leap whichever direction, one had to take on a little faith that one would be hearing everything intact. A little tremulo around the break affected the famous (or by now infamous) trill during the Council Chamber Scene. In contrast to what I have read several ftimes about Pieczonka – just recently having made her HGO debut in Lohengrin – I find her ease in achieving legato better in the Italianate repertoire than in the German thus far; such was achieved with mostly very even, lovely results for last half of Saturday. Approach, though tense, to high notes was always fearless, but especially early on at risk of sounding unsupported on them. Even with what vocal lapses might have been occurring, she sounded the more consistently engaged than did Domingo through their recognition scene in Act One together.

With approach to production somewhat similar to that of Domingo, Marcello Giordani sang Gabriele here. He is the one character to be first heard offstage, and predictably enough, registered awkwardly enough so, as though being heard from echo chamber not far offstage for his first entrance. He sounded uncharacteristically less loud once on stage in his first scene than he did off a moment before. One had to wonder if Amelia could have had trouble as to where to find him. For such earnest jump at trying to sound heroic here, Giordani, with just fortunately at least at times a little more subtlety than stock tenor mannerisms at his command, found himself with an entirely unreliable, unsupported top. Throughout any of Act Two past his big aria, he sounded almost completely lost in regards to placement altogether - after fishing for proper placement of repeated A-Flats several lines before lyrical refrain to "Sento avvampar." He fortunately recovered both semblance of voice and good behavior for Act Three.

Entirely lacking in both low notes and anything resembling gravitas, outside of prudent care for Boito's text, was James Morris as Jacopo Fiesco. The voice is now a shell of its former self, for what indeed here became a comprimario Fiesco. In duet with Giordani during Act One, even Giordani’s unsupported top unsettled matters less than did much lack of solidity underneath. Levine’s bland conducting of Fiesco’s first scene - all to eloquently frame “Il lacerate spirito” - most certainly undercut Morris for its entirety. Morris did however manage to achieve decent approximation of legato for noble refrain to the aria, as he did several moments later for "Se conceder" during following duet with Domingo. Both passages, with dignified reserve, reminded of better days for this singer. His failure at anywhere nearly being able to underpin the closing quartet in the opera made one episode therein positively sound like Offenbach, barcarolle-like, for having indeed become weightless. Fiesco’s facing off of Boccanegra - informed by seniority combined with implacability towards aspiring corsair - made no impact.

The vocally aging-defiant Fiesco of increasingly distant memory in my experience is Cesare Siepi (in place of indisposed Ghiaurov) in Houston in 1984 – at 63 years of age, opposite a somewhat weightless, at times tremulous Leo Nucci as Boccanegra. It was last spring that Domingo sang at Met gala the Act One recognition duet with Angela Gheorghiu in good form - quite effectively to anticipate taking on such a hefty assignment as faced him last Saturday and previously in Berlin. Domingo sang the duet at the gala as lyrically as if it had been bel canto. Such, though it may not have promised very much, turned out just quite aesthetically pleasing.

Saturday it was instead the complete role. Domingo’s model for Otello was primarily the fine Chilean tenor Ramon Vinay. Vinay graduated downward to Iago for a Dallas Otello (Mario Del Monaco) that possibly also included Domingo – on visit from Ft Worth Lucia - as Cassio, legend has it. Vinay also sang Telramund at Bayreuth several years later. If I had to pick just one major baritone role for Domingo to add, it would probably be Amfortas. I seriously doubt that Telramund would work for him, as sure as I am that Iago most certainly would not and that Vinay never attempted Boccanegra – and neither, for being so well versed in Verdi if not particularly idiomatic for it - Fischer-Dieskau (well known for both his recorded Iago and Telramund). Had it however been Fischer-Dieskau at peak of his powers today instead of ‘then’, the unanswerable question today would then indeed be ‘why not?’ Thomas Hampson, like a young Leo Nucci, has near as weightlessly as Domingo got some of this and with it obvious a lieder artist’s sensitivity for text – that one could have slightly more reliably picked up from Fischer-Dieskau.

The difference between then and now is that a greater number of singers - and during a time there were more great singers than there are today - knew better, knew they should be daunted by such an assignment as this. For Domingo to have achieved as much success as he did with it, though limited, Saturday, at age of sixty-nine, certainly speaks well enough for itself. The valor, the courage to do so is already such to automatically be able to become legendary. Attempt at this in a barn such as the Met I would normally reckon however slightly vain. Even so, it was most certainly the way to be heard the most places and simulated (not in person) live any great number of places around the world. One can only go so far to demean such a feat.

Domingo’s production here certainly sounded phlegmatic enough, especially in early scenes here, to have been mistaken for Germanic in place of Italianate. “V’amplesso” started off eager enough, if also with curiously phlegmatic feel for expressing uncertainly as well. The always-readily engaged Domingo showed up in Prologue as at least halfway decent match with the young Boccanegra. The stunned “Morta’s” replying to Fiesco’s news of the death of Maria resounded well as the grief of a young man – a bit amazing, coming from someone pushing seventy. “Sublimarmi a lei spira” sounded forth with good valor, fervor, almost as eager enough to take anything on, but ‘Sul mar nel lido’ a little more generically espressivo. “Qui sempre silenzio si tenebra” came across Viaay-esque foreboding enough - of uncertain future ahead.

Rougher sailing lay ahead for Act One. Uncertainty as to proper placement - even as to where correct tessitura, approach to it lies tended to over-ride expressive considerations for the first scene at seaside - mostly the recognition duet with Amelia. Levine mostly accompanied supportively enough, but as slightly too eager through piu animato for marcia that so poignantly recalls Act Three duet from Luisa Miller; he also pushed excessively through closing Iago anticipating exchange between Paolo and Pietro.

“Messeri, il re” started off right, but then Domingo made continuation of it sound like equally likely recitative out of Ernani. A certainly dark enough “Tutto e silenzio” got immediately undercut by weak, generically phlegmatic “Ecco i plebi”, instead of eruption of most deeply ingrained, cynically mixed rage and irony. The great address, ‘Plebe! Patrizi!” started off badly, with uncertainty of pitch and very choppy line, with still some incipient whine to it, up until a well couched, enveloped “Piango su voi’, even while still tight on F-sharps. This finally prepared contrastingly well for with Simon’s implacable address to Paolo - Levine and very fine bass clarinet with it all every step of the way - that recalled some of Domingo’s best days as Otello - as for instance during the Venetian delegation scene. Domingo’s real menace in forcing Paolo to repeat curse was no affectation, but somewhat compensated however for his perhaps jumping too quickly at “Sii maledetto”. Gaertner replied with good shudder, horror here.

Domingo found fine rhetorical eloquence for the last two acts, making something very affecting of the death scene; he had in previous scene sufficiently reckoned line about the bitterness of the taste of water to even who wears the crown during Act Two well. His blessing on both daughter and forgiven rebel Gabriele together with extension of clemency to Fiesco and hope for peace to all sounded sincerely heartfelt if slightly untethered vocally – with passionate cry of Maria’s name capping everything off. One felt however that towards such a fine ending one had not witnessed it for a Doge having come down from even near supreme heights as one should.

Meg and Ira sounded taken up with notion that we had arrived at a great moment of history, that we had a piece during their show of all that went on during year the revised Boccnaegra had its 1881 world premiere, all the way down to outback that year for execution of bandit Ned Kelley. Most jarring perhaps would have been to turn on right after attending this Boccanegra the 1982 La Scala dvd of Ernani Muti conducts that also stars Domingo. It is so well produced, performed for that one practically has Ernani even ape momentarily belonging to same class as we normally reckon Boccanegra and Otello – no less for what Domingo invested therein on that occasion. With Boccanegra again, one ascertained at least a somewhat humble sense on Domingo’s part of approaching end of career toward eventual end of life - something here that at least carried some poignancy - with as backdrop Saturday this great score. Verdi reckoned too that he only had so much time left in his craft for what valecdictory statements he was making here.

One had to have left this experience grateful, but also slightly confused, confounded that it is indeed still Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra; it is that for sure with which we all must contend. Such is true with the master no longer alive - this yet again being the shoddy Del Monaco production the Met brings back – and no longer able to defend himself.

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra however still endures, beyond how mere mortals may undercut, weaken its impact on our feeble psyches, minds, emotions. The apparently endless cycle of sea and sky, with its hues, colors, interaction in change of light and of mood informs all of Verdi’s score. This is even so as the engine that as while even ontologically fueling the wrath of provoked mobs also provides balm for our still more frequent need for consolation, time to reflect. The sea is something, as depicted here, always for plebeian and patrician of Genoa alike – hard for me to perceive how anyone can live happy too far for long from it where one might reside – that has endured over generations and centuries. Nobody so far has out-endured it and nobody ever will.

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