“It was a dark and stormy night” are the opening words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s long forgotten novel Paul Clifford and they serve as the epitome of melodramatic and simply bad writing. And when it comes to melodrama, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra can compete with the best/worst of them. The opera was based on the play Simón Bocanegra by the Spanish dramatist Antonio García Gutiérrez (who?) as fashioned into a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and revised by Arrigo Boito.
What saved the libretto from the fate of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel was Verdi’s music and the opera has remained in the second-tier of the standard repertory. In 1995 the Met revived it with a lavish production directed by Mario del Monaco and designed by Michael Scott. The production was filmed and broadcast on television and is now available on the Met on Demand and on DVD. It was streamed on June 14, 2021, as part of the Met’s nightly telecasts of operas during the pandemic.
The Met’s production grabs us right from the opening scene, the Prologue, with a monumental set showing grand arches, a church and the statue of a hooded grandee. Paolo (Bruno Pola) and Pietro (Hao Jiang Tian), two leaders of the people are plotting the overthrow of the aristocrats with their own choice for Doge of Genoa, the former pirate Simon Boccanegra (Vladimir Chernov). That’s the political angle.
On a personal note, Boccanegra wants the position so he can marry Maria, the daughter of aristocrat Jacopo Fiesco (Robert Lloyd). Now, Fiesco keeps his daughter locked up because she has an illegitimate daughter by, yes, Boccanegra and he wants Boccanegra to give him his granddaughter. Maria has just died and Boccanegra can’t give up the little girl because she was kidnapped. There can be no peace between Boccanegra and Fiesco – and that’s just the Prologue.
Twenty-five years later, the kidnapped girl has been raised by Fiesco as his daughter Amelia (Kiri Te Kanawa) who has acquired a patrician lover, Gabriele (Placido Domingo) who is plotting to overthrow Boccanegra. I am keeping the melodramatic details in abeyance out of respect for the reader and to maintain the BQ (Boredom Quotient) to a minimum.
Back to Verdi and the Met. The opera contains some splendid music, and unforgettable arias and ensembles. The “recognition scene” and duet “Favella il Doge” between Amelia and Boccanegra is a magnificent piece with Chernov and Te Kanawa singing with beauty and emotional finesse.
Listen to Domingo’s raging jealousy when he believes that Amelia loves Boccanegra that morphs into a prayer for her that is followed by passion and lyrical beauty. Go to the trio “Pardon, Amelia” where Gabriele, Boccanegra and Amelia sing with gorgeous cadences. This is no melodramatic parody but opera at its best.
Kiri Te Kanawa delivers a beautiful, affecting and gorgeously sung Amelia. Almost the only woman among powerful, ambitious and some nasty males, Amelia is an oasis of purity, decency and love. Te Kanawa does not miss a beat in her portrayal.
Baritone Vladimir Chernov is the troubled Doge who is buffeted by his lower-class origins, bad luck and many enemies. Chernov does a fine acting job and shows vocal prowess and ability in the role.
Bass Robert Lloyd is the heavy Fiesco, long on bitterness and hatred who discovers that he has a granddaughter after all. Lloyd with his easy sonority gives a superb performance.
The hero of the opera is Gabriele because his is a tenor, he gets the girl and he is sung by Domingo. Those are three powerful attributes but he is not the main character in the opera. No matter. Domingo was still in his prime in 1995 and his performance is outstanding.
The Met Opera Orchestra was conducted by James Levine to the usual high standards.
Scott’s sets, in addition to the square in the Prologue are monumental, colourful and simply marvelous. The seaside garden, the council chamber and the Doge’s palace are sets to behold. The costumes of the ruling class of 14th century Genoa are heavy and impressive.
The production was filmed for television and 1995 was not exactly the Ice Age for opera broadcasts but it was not the age of HD on a large screen at home with high-end speakers in a movie house either. Video Director Brian Large is quite sensible in what he wants us to see but there are some closeups we could have done without. The explanation may well be the fact that most viewers in 1995 may have watched it on a small screen.
No doubt you want me to tell you all about Bulwer-Lytton and the complications of the plot of Simon Boccanegra but unfortunately, I have already forgotten them.
The 1995 Met production of Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi was streamed on June 14, 2021, by the Metropolitan Opera. It is available on Met Opera on Demand for a fee. See www.metopera.org for more information.