Simon Boccanegra has long been a favorite of opera connoisseurs but never quite made the inroads into the standard repertoire. The Met only had its first production in 1932. Giancarlo del Monaco’s picturesque staging of 1995 is the house’s third. The complexities of the plot make Verdi’s other complicated opera, Il Trovatore (based on a play by the same Spanish writer, Gutierrez, who inspired Boccanegra), look comparatively simple. In short, the prologue is separated from the rest of the opera by 25 years. Two of the five major characters have hidden identities and are known by aliases. The plot turns on medieval Italian political intrigue at its most twisted: personal betrayal, a family feud, friction between patricians and plebians, war between pro-Papal and pro-Holy Roman Empire factions, intra-Italian strife with an inserted call for national unity, and, of course, a poisoning. It is not the easiest work to follow, but it abounds in the stuff of grand opera.
The big question surrounding this year’s revival revolves around how it would stand up to Placido Domingo’s unusual appearance in the opera’s title baritone role last season. Domingo’s widely praised performance had the virtue, or at least the singularity, of offering a Boccanegra who sounded more or less like Placido Domingo. In Dmitri Hvorostovsky the Met has found an admirable successor. Hvorostovsky has been expanding his Verdi roles with great success of late and has openly acknowledged his ambition to become one of the great Verdi baritones. His rich tones, elegant line, and able dramatics all brought out the corsair Boccanegra with vivacity. Hvorostovsky enlivened the character’s sincerity when he learns of his daughter’s birth and the death of the child’s mother. He captured his insecurity when he is named Doge. He brought sagacity to the older Boccanegra (featuring Hvorostovsky’s own trademark silvery hair rather than the dyed brown used to show the character’s youth in the prologue) and grace to his death, which in its grandeur owed something to the finale of Boris Godunov. His delivery of the curse line in the Council Chamber Scene – “E tu, repeti il giuro” – resounded as chillingly as his death scene, “Gran dio,” was poignant. One almost failed to notice the cell phone that went off just as it began. New York should look forward to many years of excellent Verdi performances with such talent at the Met’s disposal.
Hvorostovsky’s towering figure only benefited from the rest of an outstanding cast. Soprano Barbara Frittoli sang his long lost daughter Maria (known as Amelia) with a moving passion and gleaming ascents. Ferruccio Furlanetto, who is to Italian bass roles what Hvorostovsky would like to be to Verdi baritone roles, captured the outraged Fiesco (Andrea) to perfection. The charcoal qualities of his voice drew fond memories of his riveting Philip II in last fall’s Don Carlo. Ramon Vargas did not sing to quite the same caliber as Gabriele Adorno, but this talented tenor, who missed the revival’s premiere due to illness, filled the role admirably. Nicola Alaimo (nephew of Simone Alaimo) proved an unusually gripping Paolo, a master conspirator whose subtleties are too often overshadowed by the other three male characters. Met music director James Levine, who had conducted a robust Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall the previous afternoon, suffered from a cold but was competently replaced by John Keenan. The orchestra sounded ebullient. Del Monaco’s production, graced by Michael Scott’s elaborate sets, has held up well.