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Verdi at the Crossroads

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Simon Boccanegra

Lyric Opera

Lyric Opera opens its 41st season with Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a middle-period work that's been seen here four times before: in 1959 (with general director Ardis Krainik singing the role of Amelia's servant), '65, '74, and '79. That's not bad exposure for an opera that was a flop at its premiere and that still puzzles audiences with the intricacies and absurdities of its plot.

Like Wagner, Verdi was a late bloomer. If these luminaries had been cut down at age 45 their reputations would barely be greater than those of Weber and Leoncavallo. Verdi's early operas suffer from mediocre marching-band music and often hopeless librettos.

His early success had less to do with his music than with the patriotic, nationalistic sentiments he expressed: mournful dirges to oppressed homelands (disguised as Israel or Scotland) and stirring hymns to the patria. Early Verdi is easily eclipsed in sheer beauty of vocal line by Bellini and in orchestral grandeur by Wagner.

Simon Boccanegra is something of a transitional work. It clearly leaves the marching-band phase behind, but it shouldn't be numbered among Verdi's greatest works. The first version, composed in 1857, would be little more than a historic curiosity if Verdi hadn't later revised it. The libretto compressed a 19th-century play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, making its already convoluted plotline even less comprehensible. Verdi was appealing to his audiences' nationalism--as he had so successfully with I Lombardi and Nabucco--turning a 14th-century pirate and warlord from Genoa into an Italian protopatriot, a man who could unite Guelfs and Ghibellines, patricians and plebeians.

But the audiences of 1857 found Simon Boccanegra rather dry and severe, lacking the vocal charm of works by Donizetti or Bellini or even of Verdi's La traviata (1853). Verdi was using a more declamatory style, one reminiscent of Wagner.

Verdi gave the opera a major face-lift in 1881, but he undertook the task with considerable reluctance, and only because of the persistence of Giulio Ricordi, his publisher, and Verdi's great collaborator, Arrigo Boito. Verdi thought the first act needed brightening up. Boito found the whole work dramatically unsound, with the exception of the prologue. The libretto still lacks strongly defined characters, which contributes to the opera's overall weakness. Paolo drives most of the action--getting Boccanegra elected doge and ultimately poisoning him--but he never really gains any stature. Boccanegra is blown about by the winds of fate, but unlike a proper tragic hero doesn't rail or struggle. And Amelia and Adorno are a pair of stock love-interest characters. The revision is clearly an improvement, though some seams still show.

But Verdi and Boito did add the great council chamber scene, in which Verdi's lyric patriotism shines. The doge denounces his councilors for being happy to make peace with "barbarians" and "heathens" from Tartary while rejecting the idea of a treaty with their near neighbors in Venice. Later he tries to make all those who love Genoa (read Italy) join in making peace.

Like Verdi's Macbeth, this is a great vehicle for a starring baritone like the late Tito Gobbi--and pretty much a waste of time without such a voice. Lyric is fortunate to have Alexandru Agache, with his exciting baritone, as the linchpin of these performances; he performed flawlessly in the title role. The only quibble one might have is that he could do with a bit more dramatic stage presence. Kiri Te Kanawa gave an impeccable vocal performance as Amelia. She brings little soul to dramatic aspects of the performance, but that isn't a serious problem in this role. Michael Sylvester was a vocally dashing Adorno, and the cadaverously made-up Robert Lloyd was a dark and imposing Fiesco. Richard Cowan also sang well as the almost Nietzschean Paolo.

The Lyric Opera chorus turned in a workmanlike performance; the chorus is less important here than in most of Verdi's works. The orchestra covered itself with a modicum of glory under the baton of Daniele Gatti. The set designs by Michael Yeargan were uninspired but at least unobtrusive--a curious amalgam of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's monochromaticism and Wieland Wagner's rigid geometry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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