Simon Boccanegra at the Proms

But, the ovation which greeted the
conclusion of this semi-staged performance of Verdi’s dark, brooding
Simon Boccanegra was wholly justified — for once the reality more than
lived up to the hype.

Of course, the anticipation — with Proms managers predicting queues
for Arena day tickets stretching into Hyde Park — was largely for Pl·cido
Domingo, returning to the stage just a few months after treatment for cancer,
in his new guise as a baritone.

Domingo may profess that his decision to abandon his place as one of the
‘Three Tenors’ was not merely one of expediency but driven by a
life-long desire to sing one of Verdi’s greatest roles, the 14th-century
Genoan patriarch, Simon Boccanegra. In fact, for some time Domingo has been
uncomfortable at the upper end of his tenor range; indeed, he has of late asked
conductors to transpose roles downwards. But, his voice has always been
characterised by a dusky, baritonal colour, and here he seemed liberated,
relishing the soaring lines of the role, while elsewhere adopting an
appropriately weary tone. While dramatically this captured the complexities and
contrasts of this imperfect man — a ruthless, swashbuckling pirate
reluctantly recruited as leader of a warring community of aristocrats and
plebeians — musically it turned the role upside down: for the low,
conversational phrases sounded effortful while the tense melodic peaks
projected with ease. For Domingo’s baritone is a fairly light voice,
lacking a genuine heft, and some might prefer a more burnished tone,
particularly in the lower register where Domingo used his chest to strengthen
and reinforce the sound. However, one can overlook such matters when presented
with such a convincing characterisation, for Domingo truly embodied the tragic
grandeur and dignity of the careworn ruler.

A flop at its premiere in 1857 — and performed here in the revised
1881 version — Simon Boccanegra remains one of Verdi’s
most convoluted plots. There are several tangled strands, characters have
multiple names and identities, and it would be a fruitless endeavour to attempt
to unravel the complications. However, while this performance may have been
only semi-staged, there are other ways of conveying the emotional meaning of
the music than busy stage action and clever directorial tricks. Domingo
perfectly communicated the trauma and torment of the troubled Doge; and
especially impressive was the relationship he forged with Amelia, sung by
Russian soprano Maria Poplavskaya, in their tender reconciliation scenes.
Poplavskaya’s opening aria was pitch-perfect and serene, and although at
times her soprano lacked the necessary shimmer, she successfully conveyed both
the vulnerability and feistiness of Amelia, as she stands up to her domineering

But this performance was not just about Domingo and the superb ensemble cast
was inspired by the occasion, the company and by Verdi’s music. Singing
the role of Adorno, tenor Joseph Calleja almost stole the show; Calleja has a
secure Verdian technique, strong in tone and projection, subtle in dramatic
nuance. His Act 2 aria was electrifyingly ardent and justly inspired the
loudest applause of the night. There were rumours that Ferruccio Furlanetto
might be indisposed but such fears proved unfounded, and he was a typically
imposing and dignified Jacopo Fiesco, his gleaming, sonorous bass easily
filling the cavernous auditorium. Bass-baritone Jonathan Summers, completing
the cast as Paolo, lacked tonal brightness and stamina but was dramatically
effective as the Iago-lile villain, oozing menace.

Truly at home in this repertoire, Antonio Pappano commanded the orchestra of
the Royal Opera House with a blend of passionate abandon and absolute control,
delighting in Verdi’s instrumental tapestry and drawing musical pictures
of great feeling and finesse. The ensembles, especially the Act 2 trio and the
Council Chamber scene, were particularly well-shaped. Pappano’s players
rose to the occasion, producing committed and superlative playing with a
genuinely Verdian tinta.

Pl·cido Domingo has had a long, varied and illustrious career, as tenor,
conductor, artistic director (at the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington
National Opera), always seeking out new musical experiences and personal
challenges, and this clearly continues. In 1959, aged just 18-years-old, he
auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City as a baritone, and was told by
the impressed jury that he was not really a baritone and should be tackling
tenor roles — so began a celebrated and distinguished career. Now things
have come full circle. But one can’t help feeling that the auditioning
panel was in fact correct — Domingo was and is a tenor: the overall
colour and bright ‘edge’ of his voice remain those of a tenor
regardless of the register. However, whether this ‘project’ is a
personal indulgence or a brave experiment, it is one which is fully justified
by the musical outcome. Domingo told one recent interviewer, “After
Boccanegra … I will probably say Amen.” Simon Boccanegra
may spend the second half of the opera melodiously dying a drawn-out death by
poisoning but, fortunately, Domingo does not yet sound ready to stop.

Claire Seymour

Click here for audio clips of this performance.

image_description=Pl·cido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
product_by=Simon Boccanegra: Pl·cido Domingo; Amelia: Marina Poplavskaya; Gabriele Adorno: Joseph Calleja; Jacopo Fiesco: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Paolo Albiani: Jonathan Summers; Pietro: Lukas Jakobski. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Royal Opera Chorus. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Costume Designer: Peter J. Hall. Royal Albert Hall, London. Sunday 18th July 2010.
product_id=Above: Pl·cido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]