Bring On The Baritone: Simon Boccanegra

By Victoria Looseleaf

He may be in the twilight/autumn of his years, but at 71, megatenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo, still has it going on. Tackling the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Domingo rocked the rafters of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Elijah Moshinsky’s exquisite revival, a production new to Los Angeles Opera. Domingo, also general director of LA Opera who can basically pick and choose what he wants, has, indeed, chosen very well here.

That Boccanegra initially flopped in 1857 when it was given its premiere at Venice’s La Fenice (click here for our musings on the watery burg), only to receive critical acclaim when the composer revised it in 1881, this time with help from librettist Arrigo Boito, adds to the work’s gloom-and-doom mystique. And while many operas have preposterous plots, Boccanegra, with its noirish, politically-charged story, takes the torte in mistaken identities, power plays, sex, murder, and what have you.

Set in mid-14th century Genoa (our harps are from Genoa), the work opens with a prologue, where we learn that Boccanegra, an ex-pirate, has been trysting with Maria Fiesco, daughter of his arch-rival Jacopo Fiesco (the imposing bass Vitalij Kowaljow). Meanwhile, Simon is appointed to the coveted position of Doge, with a little assistance from Paolo (the able baritone Paolo Gavanelli). Flash forward 25 years and Amelia, Maria’s daughter with Simon (the lush-voiced, luscious looking soprano, Ana María Martínez), lives with Fiesco. Believing that her parents are dead (she’s right on one count: her mother died in childbirth), Maria has been brought up as Fiesco’s heir. Fiesco, having no clue as to who Amelia really is, thinks she’s merely an orphan with no connections whatsoever…ah, the convoluted plot thickens.

Simon then discovers Amelia’s identity, and, while they’re both ecstatic at this reunion, Paolo wants to marry Amelia, figuring it’s quid pro quo for helping Simon become Doge. Needless to say, Paolo is rejected, because – go figure – Amelia loves somebody else, Gabriele (the vibrant-voiced tenor Stefano Secco, in his LA Opera debut). Can you see where this is going? Hint, revenge is a dish best served Italian style (the whole Godfather thing didn’t just come from nowhere; click here for our Al Pacino coverage and here for Diane Keaton’s take on her on-screen hubby, Michael Corleone). In other words: Get out the poison, Paolo, so we can watch the slow-acting stuff take its toll on Simon. Seriously, aren’t all death scenes in the arts, er, slowly acted, drawn out, über-dramatic? (Actually, we wouldn’t have it any other way!) In any case, before Simon expires, he’s reconciled with Fiesco, and Gabriele not only gets the girl, but he’s named the new Doge.

Whew! If we only concentrate on Verdi’s score, sumptuously conducted by LA Opera music director James Conlon, as well as the singing – which was all stellar, including the marvelous chorus (directed by associate conductor/chorus master Grant Gershon), it’s a win-win night at the theater, with LA Opera having a huge hit on its hands. As for the singers being thespians, there may have been some stand-and-sing stuff, but the acting was believably verismo and worked exceedingly well here. Domingo’s presence is still formidable, his drama chops as good as his voice, now a burnished, but still authoritarian gift from God. And that afore-mentioned death scene – literally, to die for – brought gasps from the audience when this laryngeal superman hit the floor.

Then there’s the notion that Boccanegra resonates today, with its meditations on power, social strife and evil machinations no strangers to anybody who lives in Hollywood. Happily, much of this has to do with Moshinsky’s approach. The 66-year old Shanghai-born director who has been living in London for years, has staged Boccanegra five times since 1991 (and countless other operas and theater works).

He also has a genuine feel and flair for Verdi: Ultimately seeking truth on stage, the director delivers it big-time in this production. (Moshinsky can be heard during the intermission of KUSC’s live matinee broadcast, Sunday, February 19. We did the interview, but didn’t script or voice a story. For those Jonesing, however, to hear our most recent KUSC conversation, click here for our chat with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris).

But back to Boccanegra: It’s a flawless production, made more so by Peter J. Hall’s thread-perfect costumes and Michael Yeargan’s spare, pillared set. Gorgeously lit throughout by Duane Schuler, the Act I Council Scene is especially mesmerizing, resembling nothing less than a luxuriant Italian painting.

 

You may not leave the theater humming the music, but we promise you won’t forget your time spent with Simon Boccanegra and LA Opera. (We heard that Oscar-winnning actor Christoph Waltz, right, was in the audience; click here for our take on him). So pick up that phone now and call for tickets, then get downtown to see one of the remaining four performances (February 19, 21, 26 and March 1), of this dazzling production. Who knows, you just might become an operaholic. (We know we are; click here and here for our most recent LAO reviews of Roméo et Juliette and Eugene Onegin, respectively.)

 This Just In: And if singing the lead role in a Verdi opera isn’t enough, Domingo – in his spare time, hello – managed to make an appearance on The Colbert Report, teaching the unbelievably brilliant Stephen Colbert, how to, er, sing. Check it out here!

 

About Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, KUSC-FM radio, Dance Magazine, Performances Magazine and other outlets. She roams the world covering dance, music, theater, film, food and architecture. Have pen - and iPad - will travel!
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