Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra – Opera in three acts and a prologue to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave & Arrigo Boito after the play by Antonio García Gutiérrez [sung in Italian with English supertitles by Sonya Haddad]

Amelia Grimaldi – Barbara Frittoli
Gabriele Adorno – Marcello Giordani
Simon Boccanegra – José van Dam
Jacopo Fiesco – James Morris
Paolo Albiani – Nicola Alaimo
Pietro – Raymond Aceto
A Captain – Garrett Sorenson

Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 29 January, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

James LevineContinuing his commitment to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert performances of opera, Music Director James Levine brought a stellar cast of vocalists to Symphony Hall to give three performances of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”. The opera, set in 14th-century Genoa, tells the story of the title figure, a Genoese corsair who rose to become the first Doge of Genoa. The tortuous plot overflows with secrets, hidden identities, political conspiracies and personal intrigues, as well as the tender feelings and anxieties of the two powerful father-daughter relationships that are at the center of the story.

The opera had severe libretto problems in its first version and was poorly received at its 1857 premiere at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Twenty-three years later, urged by publisher Giulio Ricordi to revisit the work, Verdi enlisted the help of Arrigo Boito (who would later provide the librettos for the composer’s last masterpieces, “Otello” and “Falstaff”) to help with the revision. Among many changes, the most significant was Verdi’s replacement of the original Act One finale with a completely new text by Boito, the ‘Council Chamber Scene’. The 1881 premiere of the revised version at Teatro alla Scala in Milan met with success, and it is this version that is most usually performed today.

Levine’s performance experience with ‘Boccanegra’ goes back forty years. He first conducted it in 1969, in a concert performance in Cleveland, and he has led more than thirty performances at the Metropolitan Opera. His affection for the work, one of Verdi’s most subtle scores and centering around one of the composer’s strongest baritone personalities, was apparent throughout this perfectly focused, illuminating performance. This was the BSO’s first time performing the score, and its playing was penetrating and highly refined, always underlining the drama of the piece.

José van Dam. Photograph: Tanja NiemannBass-baritone José van Dam’s affecting portrayal of the tragic title character displayed great depth and style. He was at his most moving in the Act One recognition duet, ‘Figlia! A tal nome io palpito’ (Daughter! The very word fills me with joy) in which he learns that Amelia is his long-lost daughter. His performance was made all the more memorable for being set against that of Barbara Frittoli’s Amelia. The affecting soprano sang with a wonderful freshness, clarity and poise, and was a perfect match for van Dam as a theatrical and vocal force.

As Fiesco, James Morris sang beautifully and delivered a solid, commanding portrayal of Boccanegra’s rival. Tenor Marcello Giordani, reprising the role of Gabriele, which he sang in the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent performances of ‘Boccanegra’ in 2007, delivered a passionate but vocally uneven portrayal. Some of the most exciting singing came from the young baritone Nicola Alaimo in the role of the Paolo, the Genoese goldsmith who is the villain of the piece. Raymond Aceto brought his fine basso to the relatively small role of the Genoese plebeian Pietro.

The ensembles and chorus-work are the great strengths of Verdi’s score for ‘Boccanegra’, and in this performance they did not disappoint. The entire ‘Council Chamber Scene’ with its stormy finale featuring a sextet of the major characters and the chorus was tremendously powerful and moving. Singing from memory, the 125-member Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed with remarkable precision and dramatic intensity, but were most impressive in this, one of the most astonishing scenes in all of Verdi’s oeuvre.

Altogether this was a compelling, highly satisfying performance that brought out all the vitality and sophistication in Verdi’s masterful score.

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