This review covers two performances of the same production with different main casts.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to experience Italian opera in a traditional setting and hear Simon Bocaneggra twice in a week with different cast in the leading roles, at the magnificent and oldest public opera house in the world, Teatro di San Carlo (opened 1737). It is a real gem.
Both performances moved and impressed this reviewer.
Set in 14th-century Genoa, Simon Boccanegra is a dark opera with a complex plot in which personal and political dramas intertwine. This opera is a conflation of two musical versions. The first version was written before the unification of Italy had been completed. The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, performed at La Fenice in 1857. It was a flop. The current version, thoroughly overhauled by Verdi and the gifted librettist Arrigo Boito, was first staged at La Scala in 1881. It was a triumph and it is this version that is commonly used.
The prologue sets the scene. There is no Verdian grand chorus opening but a quiet scheming between Paolo Albani and Pietro, plotting to make Simon Boccanegra, one of their own party, the next Doge of Genoa. Boccanegra, reluctantly agrees hoping that the new post will endear him to Jacopo Fiesco, Maria’s father. Maria and Simon have a love child, Amelia. Once a Doge, he discovers that Maria is dead and that their young daughter has gone missing. Maria’s father, the powerful Fiesco swears that there will be no peace between him and Boccanegra until his granddaughter is found.
What follows in the next three Acts takes place twenty-five years later. Boccanegra is still the powerful Doge but a troubled man. He finally discovers his lost daughter, Amelia, but at the same time he finds that his political enemies – including Amelia’s lover Gabriele Adorno – gather against him, while the ruthless, duplicitous Paolo poses a threat closer to home. Parts of the plot are like dark alleys, leading nowhere but generate an atmosphere of senseless feuds and conspiracies.
Boccanegra is one of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles, well-developed, both musically and dramatically. The performances on both nights benefited from superb baritones, Ambrogio Maestri and Amartuvshin Enkhbat.
The two have a different approach to their role, yet both convey strength and warmth imbued with sharp and soft colours that capture the character’s fortitude, fleeting joys and resignation of a powerful but essentially decent man, who having been reunited with his daughter Amelia, longs for political peace.
Ambrogio Maestri’s formidable and statesman-like presence dominates the political slant of the plot. He is ardent, proud, with a dignified exterior and a baritone voice to match. On the other hand, Amartuvshin Enkhbat’s superb dramatic performance projected more of the passionate spirit and warmth of his character. His resonant voice is emotionally more expressive.
Myrtò Papatanasiu’s Amelia, Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter, has vocal warmth projecting rounded colour and balance of tone. Davinia Rodriguez, on the alternate night, after a tentative start, with a lot of vibrato in her voice, settled and presented a convincing daughter. She is excellent on middle notes, evoking emotions and drama but her high notes manifested evident exertion.
One of the finest basso roles in the repertory is that of Jacopo Fiesco. Neither John Relyea nor Giorgio Giuseppini project the formidable presence demanded by the role of Fiesco. Each sang with a rich dark tone but neither vocal is the requisite ‘steel bass’, sought by Verdi.
The Albanian-born tenor, Saimir Pirgu, as Gabriele Adorno, Amelia’s lover, is formidable musically and theatrically. He creates an ardent, noble character and his velvety, Italianate tone is thrilling, unalloyed joy. On the alternate night, Leonardo Caimi’s Gabriele took time to warm-up. His voice gradually developed from faint and uninspiring to a more confident Gabriele.
The Iago-like, villainous Paolo Albiani is convincingly projected by the respective baritones on the two evenings, namely Gianfranco Montresor and Gezim Myshketa.
The orchestra, under the magical baton of Stefano Ranzani, given focus and superb acoustic by the opera house, heighten the greatness of this opera.
Sylvano Bussotti’s direction, revived by Paolo Vettori, sets the opera in 1347. The colourful costumes and the simple set depict the Gothic period as seen in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous fresco ‘Good Government’ in the Hall of Peace in Palazzo Publico, Siena, which resonates with Verdi’s aspirations for a united Italy led by a figure like Boccanegra, the Doge who embodies humane and passionate qualities, who is fallible in private yet fearless in public, a leader who has the strength to put aside petty squabbles but is capable of challenging intrigues and denouncing traitors.