04 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – SIMON BOCCANEGRA (T. Hampson, K. Opolais, J. Calleja, C. Colombara, L. Pisaroni; DECCA 478 5354)

Giuseppe Verdi - SIMON BOCCANEGRA (DECCA 478 5354)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Simon Boccanegra—T. Hampson (Simone Boccanegra), K. Opolais (Maria Boccanegra/Amelia Grimaldi), J. Calleja (Gabriele Adorno), C. Colombara (Jacopo Fiesco), L. Pisaroni (Paolo Albiani), I. Bakan (Pietro), A. Owens (Un capitano dei balestri), G. Petrone (Un’Ancella di Amelia); Wiener Singakademie; Wiener Symphoniker; Massimo Zanetti [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in the Wiener Konzerthaus, 12 – 18 April 2013; DECCA 478 5354; 2CD, 131:48; Available from Amazon, iTunes, and major music retailers]

Why, more than a century after the composer’s death, do the operas of Giuseppe Verdi continue to engage the hearts and minds of audiences in virtually all of the world’s opera houses?  It can be argued with some degree of legitimacy, especially in the contexts of seasons planned in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth and an era in which there is an acknowledged paucity of singers with the vocal and technical resources required to fully meet the demands of his music, that a few of Verdi’s operas suffer from over-exposure, but bold is the opera-house management that mounts a season without a Verdi score in repertory.  Hoary clichés would have it that the operas of Verdi hold the stage because the characters who populate them are somehow ‘relevant’ to audiences, but how many listeners have genuine understandings of the tribulations of Hebraic slaves, Genovese doges, and Spanish kings?  There are very personal histories depicted in Verdi’s operas, some retold more factually than others, but it is doubtful that anyone goes to the opera in search of an education about the matriarchal social mores of Spanish gypsies or the peculiar chivalry of Lancastrian England—the sort of plot elements from which clever fellows like Gilbert and Sullivan could mine satirical gold.  The lives of 21st-Century taxi drivers, bank tellers, preschool teachers, and factory workers are shaped by the same basic conflicts and emotions that fuel the dramas of Verdi’s operas, however.  Few who hear DECCA’s new recording of Simon Boccanegra are likely to have been reunited with a presumed-dead child or victimized by the violence of a blood feud, but the expressions of intermingling fear, longing, distrust, and love that make Verdi’s opera—here presented in the composer’s 1881 revision—so theatrically gripping surely resonate with any listener.  From the perspective afforded by musical history, modern arguments about the ‘relevance’ of opera seem beside the point, artistically and practically.  Like Händel and Mozart before him, Verdi was a consummate man of the theatre, composing with keen understanding of his audiences’ sensibilities rather than in spite of them.  The objective, then as now, was to sell tickets, and Verdi knew that the key to doing this was not offering musical portraits of people who looked or lived like those paying to see them.  No, the paths to audiences’ wallets travel through their ears and hearts, and Verdi gave his audiences past and present unmistakably familiar emotions set to exquisite melodies.  These are the reasons why Verdi’s music perseveres two hundred years after the composer’s birth; and the reasons why this recording of Simon Boccanegra is an apt commemoration of the Verdi Bicentennial.

Were Mark Twain writing today, he might opine that rumors of the demise of the Classical Music recording industry have been greatly exaggerated.  It is true that new studio recordings of operatic repertory are rare now, but ‘live’ recordings of the quality offered by DECCA in this Simon Boccanegra confirm that the art of recording opera is alive, well, and conquering new territory.  Preserved by DECCA’s engineers in excellently-defined sound that captures much of the sonic ambiance of the Wiener Konzerthaus, this recording benefits from the superb acoustics possible when recording concert performances and the vibrancy of musicians interacting with audiences.  Virtually no extraneous noises betray the presence of those audiences, however, and the recorded sound is in fact superior to that heard on many studio recordings.  Balances are ideal, with singers, chorus, and orchestra all occupying appropriate spaces in the sonic landscape and reaching the listener just as they would in the theatre.  The wonderfully dramatic singing of the Wiener Singakademie deserves the attention lavished on recording it: even the most impassioned passages are free from distortion, and whether acclaiming the newly-elected Doge in the Prologue or noisily indulging in agenda-laden partisan politics in the Council Chamber scene, the choral singing is thrilling and recorded accordingly.  The playing of the Wiener Symphoniker matches the choral singing appealingly, rising to every challenge of Verdi’s score with distinction.  The orchestral introduction to the Prologue is one of Verdi’s most intriguing curtain-raisers, the repetitive melodic figurations employed to great effect as tension builds with each modulation, and the Wiener Symphoniker players deliver the music suggestively.  The brass fanfares that are so crucial in Simon Boccanegra are played with unerring intonation, and string tone is full-bodied but never over-prominent.  In the brief Prelude that opens Act One, the sounds of awakening Nature with which Verdi infused his music have never been more realistically conveyed.  Both the chorus and the orchestra are deployed with idiomatic command of resources by Massimo Zanetti, whose conducting is all the more impressive for being centered on Verdi’s rather than his own conceptions of the drama.  Throughout the performance, Maestro Zanetti discloses a refreshing comprehension of Verdi’s scenic construction, shaping numerous passages with insightful use of portamento even when his singers do not respond in kind.  Simon Boccanegra is a viable candidate for being Verdi’s most episodic opera, and Maestro Zanetti paces each scene with recognition of its unique energy but without losing sight of the formal structure of the opera as a whole.  All things considered, few performances—and even fewer recordings—of Simon Boccanegra in the past half-century have taken flight with the authentic spirit of Verdi so palpably coursing through the choral singing, orchestral playing, and conducting.

The Prologue opens in fine Verdian fashion with conspiratorial exchanges between Pietro, a prominent plebian, and Paolo Albiani, the goldsmith whose support for Simone Boccanegra’s election as Doge is motivated by deeply personal hatred of patricians and latent ambitions of his own.  Singing powerfully throughout the performance, bass-baritone Igor Bakan is a Pietro to be taken seriously.  Luca Pisaroni’s Paolo is also a strong presence in the drama, his dark-hued but nimble voice snaking commandingly through his interview with Pietro in the Prologue and ringing out robustly in the Council Chamber scene, in which Paolo is compelled to implicitly curse his own treachery.  Dramatically, Mr. Pisaroni possesses the vital ability of turning on a dime, as it were, using subtle colorations of tone to be convincing both as an iron-willed political manipulator and as a suitably ardent rival for Amelia’s love.  The horror that Mr. Pisaroni conveys in Paolo’s reluctant repetition of Simone’s oath of ‘Sia maledetto’ (‘May he [the traitor] be condemned’) is gripping, and the Machiavellian insinuations with which he attempts to recruit first Fiesco and then Adorno to the task of assassinating Simone are wonderfully chilling.  None of the bite of Paolo’s bitterness is lost as he is led to his execution, rejoicing in the knowledge that his evil has ensured Simone’s death, and the depraved intensity of Mr. Pisaroni’s performance likewise never flags.  Also worthy of mention are the performances of Gaia Petrone as Amelia’s maidservant and Andrew Owens as the captain of the crossbowmen, both singers making much of their few lines.

Jacopo Fiesco is among Verdi’s most unconventional creations.  Like Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre, the influence of Fiesco’s actions is felt in every scene of Simon Boccanegra, but even when physically and musically present in a scene he is often a mere shadow, a figure whose motivations are cloaked in mystery.  Several of Verdi’s most memorable bass rôles—Ramfis in Aida and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, in particular—were shaped by Verdi’s distrust of religious institutions, their villainy founded upon dogma, but Fiesco’s heart was hardened by grief and suspicion rather than prejudicial faith.  The death of Fiesco’s daughter Maria, mother of Simone’s daughter, shatters whatever happiness Fiesco ever enjoyed and poisons his relations with Simone.  That Verdi, who had suffered the loss of his own young daughter, sympathized meaningfully with Fiesco is revealed by the quality of the music that the composer lavished on the character.  Among Verdi’s bass rôles, only Philippe II in Don Carlos has music comparable in beauty and emotional impact to Fiesco’s ‘Il lacerato spirito.’  Carlo Colombara brings involvement and an audible sense of tragedy to this scene, singing the great aria capably but without extraordinary insights.  Mr. Colombara’s voice remains steady throughout the range required by Fiesco’s music, and he encounters fewer difficulties with the rôle’s tessitura than many singers who take the part, but there is a curious lack of idiomatic phrasing in his singing in this performance.  Perhaps affected by the editing of multiple performances, the portamento that should be as natural for Italian singers as breathing is largely absent from Mr. Colombara’s singing.  The duet with Adorno in Act One, ‘Propizio ei giunge,’ draws from Mr. Colombara his finest singing of the performance, and his contributions to the Council Chamber scene are quietly menacing.  The dignity of Fiesco’s rank is evident in his rejection of Paolo’s suggestion that he murder Simone in Act Two, and Mr. Colombara elevates his performance to heights of true passion in Act Three, as Fiesco learns from the dying Simone that Maria is his granddaughter.  The sense of thwarted vengeance is abated by the overwhelming joy of reconnection, movingly conveyed by Mr. Colombara.  Both musically and dramatically, Mr. Colombara’s performance is impressive, but there are missed opportunities.

Acclaimed as one of the most promising sopranos to inhabit the world’s opera houses in recent seasons, Kristine Opolais follows her much-discussed performance of the title rôle in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, recorded for Orfeo under the baton of her husband, Andris Nelsons, with this assumption of Maria in Simon Boccanegra.  In many ways, Maria is a fusion of Verdi’s earlier and later styles of composition for his soprano heroines, her music encompassing both the flexibility of Gilda and Violetta and the heavier demands of Aida and Élisabeth de Valois.  As a result, the rôle has been effectively sung by lyric sopranos like Victoria de los Ángeles, Mirella Freni, and Katia Ricciarelli and by larger voices such as those of Dame Margaret Price and Anna Tomowa-Sintow.  Precisely where Ms. Opolais’s voice stands in comparison with these singers is virtually impossible to ascertain in the context of a recording, but it is apparent from her first notes in ‘Come in quest’ora bruna sorridon gli astri e il mare’ that the voice is quite beautiful.  Conjecturing on the aural profile of a voice using a recording as evidence is dangerous, even when the recording was taken from concert performances, but it seems throughout this Boccanegra that Ms. Opolais relies more upon volume than projection in order to be heard, especially in ensembles.  ‘Come in quest’ora bruna,’ her only aria, is sung very well, but here and throughout the performance Ms. Opolais’s phrasing sounds artificial, possibly deriving from a non-native acquaintance with the text.  She is affected most by the contrasts between her literal phrasing and the orchestral portamento that Maestro Zanetti applies with such a sure hand.  Ms. Opolais sings passionately in the duet with Adorno, ‘Cielo di stelle orbato,’ but here, too, she succeeds with energy rather than finesse.  The duet with Simone, ‘Figlia! a tal nome io palpito,’ the most memorable outpouring of melody in the opera, also inspires Ms. Opolais to committed, rewardingly full-toned singing, and here she takes the upper hand.  She makes laudable attempts at the trills in the Council Chamber scene, where her singing is otherwise slightly aloof.  The conflicts and resolutions of Acts Two and Three find Ms. Opolais more audibly absorbed into the drama.  Vocally, perhaps Ms. Opolais’s greatest strength in this performance is her consistency: she reliably has all of the part’s notes in her voice, and nothing makes unduly strenuous demands on her considerable resources.  Time and experience in Verdi repertory will likely warm the timbre of her voice, and despite moments that are less graceful than the music deserves this is a commendable inaugural effort by a soprano with the potential to make a lasting mark in the singing of Verdi’s operas in the 21st Century.

Celebrated for his mastery of a wide repertory and for his urbane artistry, Thomas Hampson does not possess the size or weight of voice of an ideal Verdi baritone.  Rather than attempting to replicate the larger-scaled Verdi singing of his countrymen Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, and Cornell MacNeil, Mr. Hampson has pursued a course of being the ‘thinking man’s’ baritone, placing sophistication rather than brute strength at the core of his performances.  The title rôle in Simon Boccanegra has proved one of Mr. Hampson’s most frequently-sung Verdi parts, one that he has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, in Chicago, and throughout the world.  Vocally, Mr. Hampson’s singing contrasts interestingly with that of Ms. Opolais: in the Prologue and all three Acts, there are passages in which Mr. Hampson must strive to achieve with intelligent management of resources what he cannot produce with sheer volume and tonal amplitude.  There are evident poetry and the early stirrings of tragedy in Mr. Hampson’s singing in the Prologue, in which Simone proves willing to sacrifice himself to the political machine in order to render himself—as Doge—more acceptable as a match for Fiesco’s daughter, and the duet with his rediscovered daughter in Act One is thoughtfully sung, though the pianissimo top F on ‘figlia’ at the duet’s close sounds strangely disembodied, as though recorded in a different acoustic.  In an emotionally-charged scene such as this one, in which nuances of language are so important, the weakness of Mr. Hampson’s diction, his Italian never incorrect but sounding as if learned syllabically, is disappointing, and though his phrasing is unfailingly competent it lacks the authority brought to Simone’s lines by a singer like Tito Gobbi.  With a singer of Mr. Hampson’s accomplishments singing the title rôle, the duet with Maria in Act One cannot fail to make a powerful impression, and Verdi’s music soars.  Mr. Hampson faces his greatest challenges in the Council Chamber scene, where even baritones with larger voices are stretched by the demands of the music.  Mr. Hampson occasionally forces his tone to the point of discomfort, mitigating the basic attractiveness of the timbre by attempting to lower his natural high center of vocal gravity in order to summon greater power in the upper register.  This pressure also introduces a measure of unsteadiness, but Mr. Hampson is too shrewd an artist to risk damaging his voice.  Dramatically, Mr. Hampson is an uncommonly intuitive Simone, feeling the sting of Paolo’s betrayal with special pain.  This Simone is a pensive pirate who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Mr. Hampson’s portrayal is at its most eloquent in the opera’s final scene.  So pervasive is the dearth of genuine Verdi baritones that the principal baritone rôles in several of Verdi’s operas have recently been appropriated by a tenor.  In having his Simone preserved on a note-complete commercial recording, Mr. Hampson—a baritone, at least—enjoys a boon that Tibbett, Warren, and MacNeil were denied.  That he ultimately offers an interesting, touching portrait of Simone with a voice that is fundamentally ill-suited to the rôle reveals the erudition of his artistry and understanding of his own voice.  It is a flawed but fascinating performance.

In many recent productions of Simon Boccanegra, performances of Gabriele Adorno’s music have been more to be endured than enjoyed.  The first Adorno at the Metropolitan Opera in 1932 was Giovanni Martinelli, and in subsequent seasons the part was sung by important tenors like Richard Tucker and George Shirley: in the 21st Century, however, it is rare to encounter an Adorno with a voice worthy of the part.  Where this recording triumphs over many Boccanegra recordings, even those of the storied past, is in the casting of Adorno.  From his first appearance in Act One until his last note in the opera’s final scene, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sings gloriously, allowing the brightness of his timbre and his quick vibrato to make the requisite impact in music typically sung by larger voices.  Mr. Calleja’s singing bristles with passion in his duet with Maria in Act One, and there is an almost religious fervor to his singing in the duet with Fiesco that follows.  An especially laudable aspect of Mr. Calleja’s performance is the manner in which he manages to create an Adorno who is a credible firebrand without overextending his voice.  Still, there is nothing ‘contained’ about Mr. Calleja’s performance: the voice boils with jealous anger in ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima,’ and the elegant line maintained in ‘Cielo pietoso, rendila’ adheres to the highest historical standards of Verdi singing.  Adorno’s shifting allegiances are the sort of operatic plot device that can all too easily dissolve into ridiculous melodrama, but the conviction with which Mr. Calleja sings makes every word of his rôle—delivered with superb diction—completely convincing.  Mr. Calleja’s takes as his starting point for his characterization of Adorno the notion that he is essentially a restless, somewhat volatile young man whose sympathies are pulled in different directions, sometimes mercilessly.  His one unchanging loyalty is to Maria, to whom he remains devoted even when Fiesco reveals that she is not a member of the aristocratic Grimaldi family, and the ardor with which Mr. Calleja sings in scenes with Maria is very moving.  Now almost a decade into an international career that has garnered accolades throughout the world, Mr. Calleja’s voice shows no signs of the deterioration that in the current generation has marred the singing of so many young tenors at similar junctures in their careers.  His timbre is somewhat reminiscent of that of Carlo Bergonzi in his first seasons as a tenor, and in this performance Mr. Calleja rises to a level of Verdi singing virtually unheard since Bergonzi’s retirement from the stage.

Though it was already an extraordinary opera at the time of its première in Venice in 1857, Verdi’s 1881 revisions to Simon Boccanegra produced a true masterpiece.  The reluctant Doge and his restored daughter are some of the composer’s most memorable creations, and there are in Verdi’s portraits of these denizens of Renaissance Genoa aspects of humanity that need no translation or misguided reinterpretation for the supposed benefit of modern audiences.  Thankfully, the opera has experienced a Renaissance of its own in recent years, its prominence in the seasons of opera companies throughout the world indicating universal recognition of the score’s unique potency.  A friend to opera for decades, DECCA here perpetuates the label’s friendship with Verdi with a recording of Simon Boccanegra that is more than the proverbial sum of its parts.  Though celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial is waning, the best moments of this recording inspire fervent hopes that Joseph Calleja and Massimo Zanetti are reunited for addition Verdi projects in future.  They also renew desire to ensure that the music of Verdi thrives for another two centuries.

Thomas Hampson in the title rôle of Verdi's SIMON BOCCANEGRA at the Metropolitan Opera, 2007 [Photo by Marty Sohl; © The Metropolitan Opera] Thomas Hampson in the title rôle of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera, 2007 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]