Simon Boccanegra - Royal Opera House, 29 June 2010
With Berlin, Milan and New York under his belt, Placido Domingo’s now done enough Boccanegras for everyone to realise that him turning into a true baritone was always about as likely as England getting anywhere in the World Cup. True, he has all the notes, but the tenorial burnish is as it ever was. Interestingly, he only strained (a teeny bit) at the very top of his range - a studied attempt at baritonal authenticity, I wonder?
But this is academic territory. What matters is that regardless of theoretical vocal fit, he gave a truly monumental performance by any standard in the opening night of the Royal Opera House's latest run.
******** more on next page ********
Burdened by public duty and private regrets, the aging Doge’s wearied yet inexorable progress to his final end was magnetically charted. Cosmetically rejuvenated for the Prologue, his forced sprightliness hinted tellingly at his eventual fate. The voice seemed tired in Saturday’s Vienna concert, but it was back to full health last night – there are tenors half his age who sound worse. Of course he got a standing ovation and of course he deserved it.
The orchestra played an equally big part in the success of the evening. Pappano just breathes this music. Every moment, even the quietest and the slowest, had an urgent momentum. And all of the beautiful details of the scoring were lovingly brought out. If the drama of Simon Boccanegra weren’t such a “wobbly table” (to paraphrase its librettist, Boito), I’m sure the score would rank much higher amongst Verdi’s greatest.
The rest of the casting couldn’t have been bettered. Fabulous Ferruccio Furlanetto couldn’t quite steal the show with his Fiesco as he did last time round, but his opening scene with Domingo had the power of two mighty beasts meeting in the jungle, each aware that in the other lies his own nemesis.
Joseph Calleja took an almighty leap up from his usual Nemorinos and Alfredos to tackle Adorno for the first time. It’s Domingo’s old role, of course, but Calleja’s high, ringing tenor has none of Domingo’s baritonal depth, and the two blended surprisingly well in ensemble. From an understandably tentative start, Calleja blossomed, bringing the house down with a splendid Sento avvampar nell'anima, and garnering nearly as much applause as Domingo at the end.
If you dissected Marina Poplavskaya’s performance bit-by-bit, there would be a few areas that wouldn’t quite measure up – top notes not quite hit and general vocal unruliness amongst them. And one of the greatest weapons in her armoury, the famous bum-length blonde hair, now sports six inches of brunette root. (Touchingly, she had her dropped curls re-tonged for the curtain call.) But taken as a whole she had a personal magnetism and an investment in the part that for me quite outweighs any of her faults. The sense that she’s not quite in control of her instrument only adds a thrilling edge to her performance. She was a worthy match for Domingo in a recognition scene so powerful, so dramatically taut, it was impossible not to cry.
In Jonathan Summers, we had a weightier, more fully-drawn Paolo than is often the case, and casting the very different looking and sounding Lukas Jakobski as Pietro provided a better contrast than usual.
In the face of this superlative casting, it scarcely mattered that the production itself is little more than unobtrusive. The sets to-and-fro between bathhouse and steakhouse. Domingo and co are luxuriously upholstered in a range of sumptuous colour-coordinated fabrics and carefully positioned to optimise viewing, the chorus are fussily herded from end to end, but otherwise there’s not much in the way of direction. I could see the principals most of the time, and that’s what mattered – otherwise I wasn’t too bothered by my restricted view seat.