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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, November 2010

Here we have a mostly wonderful Simon Boccanegra directed by Peter Stein, who, though into dark lighting and minimalist sets, is at least, thank goodness, not into Eurotrash. Some of his effects seem obvious and a little cheap, like the dark obelisk onstage that suddenly lights up to a bright white the moment Boccanegra realizes that Amelia is his daughter Maria, but in so many places Stein surprises you with excellent effects like the onstage figures visible through scrims at the start of the Council scene or that moment toward the end of that scene where Boccanegra lifts his arms outstretched while Maria-Amelia, standing at the bottom of the short staircase directly beneath him, raises them partway. It creates a stunning tableau, and both tableaus and psychological “aha!” moments are what Stein is all about.

Feruccio Furlanetto, one of the most underrated of Italian basses, commands the stage with both his superb acting and his resplendent voice, which has become much darker over the years since his time as a Mozart singer. He is a little unsteady in the prologue but warms up about halfway through his aria. The young baritone Boaz Daniel is sensational in the role of Paolo. Considering how relatively unpopular this opera is, it’s surprising that many baritones have gotten their first major recognition in this role, going back at least to Leonard Warren in 1939. Cristina Gallardo-Domás is a hammy, eye-bugging actress and thus uncomfortable to watch, but once she gets her voice under control, about halfway through the duet with Gabriele, she sings marvelously. Earlier, during her opening aria, she unfortunately displays an unruly tremolo and sings flat for nearly one full chorus. Miroslav Dvorský, younger brother of tenor Peter, sounds nearly identical in timbre and phrasing to his older sibling, which is all to the good. Having never seen Peter sing either onstage or on video, I can’t tell if he was as good an actor as Miroslav, but the younger Dvorský is superb in this respect. The opera is so well cast that even the smaller role of Pietro is performed brilliantly by baritone Dan Paul Dumitrescu.

Thomas Hampson, who generally has a tendency toward eye-bugging and arm-waving himself, is dignified and minimal in gesture here, which works splendidly. All of his characterization is in the voice, which makes sense for an opera singer who is also a noted Lieder singer. The costumes are very nice, though Boccanegra looks a bit like Nebuchadnezzar. I was pleased to see that Gallardo-Domás, a small-busted woman, wears elegant and beautiful dresses that are not low cut to her navel with her bust shoved up to her throat. Although the early scenes are all fairly dark, a Stein trademark, the Council Chamber is well lit and quite bright.

Unfortunately Boccanegra, unlike Don Carlo and Otello, was somewhat flawed from the start due to a libretto that, as Verdi put it, was like a “wobbly table” that could be made to stand if one of its legs was fixed. Boito strengthened it, as did Verdi himself, who used two of Petrarch’s letters as a basis for the Council Scene, yet there remains a flaw. As one critic put it, the problem is that Boccanegra himself never changes. He reacts to events around him but stays the same. Thus the opera remains, like Macbeth, a piece that is spellbinding in its own right but not quite a perfect dramaturgy.

Gatti conducts extremely well, combining a lyrical flow with dramatic punch, almost the equal of Fabio Luisi at the Metropolitan in 2007. The Vienna Philharmonic plays very well for him; indeed, it was this production that led the orchestra to invite him to conduct subscription concerts in the future.

Despite the caveats noted above, this is by far the best video Boccanegra available, and thus well worth your while if you enjoy the opera as much as I do.

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