My truncated-by-choice season at San Francisco Opera got off to a good start last Tuesday with Simon Boccanegra, but then I figured any chance to see this opera would be a good start, and this production is better than solid.
While reading the program beforehand, I noted that the Message from the Chairman of the Board and President of the SF Opera Association claimed that this season “exemplifies the vitality and spirit of innovation at the core of San Francisco Opera.” What the hell are they drinking over there, and will they share it with the rest of us? If a season almost half of which is made up of L’Elisir d’Amore, Tosca, Boheme, and Traviata exemplifies innovation, I can’t even imagine what we will get if reaction sets in. I’d just like to point out, once again, that you shouldn’t put old wine in new skins, and technological innovation is not the same thing as artistic innovation.
This production of Boccanegra had been seen here before; shorn of a few oddities (like having Verdi wander solo and inexplicably across the stage before the action started) it is a sturdy if not particularly daring or illuminating production. I thought this go-round was more consistent than the last one. Of course, last time, I saw the performance in which Boccanegra had to drop out at intermission due to vocal difficulties, and one of his enemies now became him, and someone else had to be bumped up to that now vacant role, which couldn’t have helped anyone having trouble following the famously convoluted plot.
As for the plot, several weeks ago I took Budden on Boccanegra down from the shelf where all three volumes are patiently waiting to be read, but haven’t had a chance to read it. I understand it clears up a lot of the background of what happens and why. I do feel, though, that an attentive viewer (that would be me, in case you were wondering) should be able to wander in blank and follow the proceedings. And as with the libretto of The Mother of Us All, it all makes sense if you pay close attention to the dialogue; you can find the line or two that will explain away whatever confusion is vexing you. But if there’s one that explains why Boccanegra and his rediscovered daughter persist in keeping their relationship a secret with dire consequences, then I missed it, so Budden on Boccanegra is not going back on the shelf until I can read it and see if I missed something.
As with baroque opera or film noir, the action – on stage if not on the page – is actually pretty easy to follow, and the murkiness may be the point. It’s not the plot mechanics themselves that are of paramount importance, but the mood and characterization, and that’s why a huge mystery or gap in motivation is a greater obstacle than the complicated familial and political relationships. But the complexity of the plot has become a received notion, which means audiences are filled with those who feel the need to make little jokes or observations about the plot during the performance, to show that they are conversant with the howling complexities. There wasn’t an excessive amount of that at my performance, but a little is still too much. Though I had been warned that the Tuesday audiences were dead, and I was relieved to find that to be somewhat true.
I liked Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the lead quite a lot, though I did feel that there were some moments, including part of the Council Chamber scene, where he lacked power and volume (there was also some clumsily slow crowd fights in this scene that should be sharpened). But as I noticed when he performed Don Giovanni here a few years back, he excels at saturnine brooding and melancholy. My disappointment at missing Barbara Frittoli’s debut was mitigated by my pleasure in hearing Ana Maria Martinez again after her memorable Micaela a few seasons back. She had some choppy lines in her opening aria (but then I hear so did Frittoli, and so do most other Amelias) but soon got over her nerves or breathe problems or whatever and sang with beauty of line and total commitment for the rest of the night. During the intermission the man next to me asked which of the Amelias we were hearing. He and his wife had been discussing this, although the two sopranos don’t really look alike. I told him it was Martinez and pointed out that her name on the cast page listed the dates she was singing. He thanked me and said he thought she was excellent. I agreed and pointed out that she also looked the part, which always helps. “Yes,” he said, “and she has great eyebrows.” Since I know someone else with an eyebrow thing, this amused me.
The whole cast was pretty consistent, I thought, with the disturbingly ratlike Paolo of Patrick Carfizzi contrasting nicely with his tall and handsome co-conspirator, Kenneth Kellogg; Vitalij Kowaljow was a somber Fiesco and brought emotional gravitas to what could be a one-dimensionally heavy role; Marcus Haddock was the ardent Garbriele Adorno, which is a bit of a thankless role, since the main love affair is clearly that of the father and his long-lost daughter. I thought the applause at the end was a bit subdued considering that this performance was apparently and unsurprisingly superior to Opening Night (check here for a link to Lisa Hirsch’s review; she also links to Joshua Kosman’s in the Chronicle and sfmike’s at Civic Center), but the eyebrow man next to me said, “Wow! Not bad for a Tuesday night!” So I guess the audience was appropriately appreciative after all, in its own fashion.
Every time I encounter this opera I have a deeper impression of its greatness. One of the things that struck me this time is how Shakespearean it is, which might be the ultimate compliment; not only in its complexity of characterization and its intermingling of the personal and the political, and its contempt for mobs, but in the way that Verdi, just like Shakespeare in some of his late plays, revisits themes that have appeared earlier in his work: the abducted daughter, the accusation of infidelity which is emotionally if not technically true, the betrayal by trusted subordinates. You feel an artist revisiting past terrain as he makes ready to move forward.