The two maritime Republics that seven centuries ago Petrarch was fruitlessly trying to pacify have now finally joined forces to co-produce an opera that binds them closely together, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which, though set in Genoa, was commissioned by Venice. By mere coincidence, another maritime Republic, Pisa, also playing an important part in the plot, recently opened its own season with the same opera albeit in a different mise-en-scène. The Venetian/Genoese production, which inaugurated the 2014/15 season of Teatro La Fenice, was entrusted to Andrea De Rosa, who created a fixed structure serving both as exterior and interior and covers the background at varying degrees the. Realistic and evocative videos of a gently rolling sea, filmed by Pasquale Mari in the vicinity of Genoa at the times of the day indicated by the libretto, were projected. The sea, dark, gloomy and barely seen during the Prologue, becomes increasingly caressed by dawn in the first scene of Act I; the final scene is an apotheosis of the sea, often defined as the real protagonist of this opera. It is a pleasant production, descriptive without being oleographic, and enhanced by Alessandro Lai’s beautiful costumes. De Rosa lavished attention on the interactions between the singers; the only faux pas was his apparent caricatural conception of a Paolo Albiani, viewed as a sort of comic villain, particularly in Act II when he stealthily tip-toed his way to Boccanegra’s desk to pour poison into his cup looking like Sylvester the Cat. The only (not only metaphorically) extraneous body in an otherwise traditional staging was the presence of the beloved Maria, first seen as a listless corpse in the arms of a distressed Simone, and later as a “protective” ghost in some key moments of the following acts. Although it does not add anything new to the development of the plot, it is undeniable that the mirror-like conclusion of the opera showing the the ghost of Maria holding on her lap the dying Simone not unlike Michelangelo’s Pietà is a highly moving tableau; what’s more, De Rosa materialised what I have always suspected: the Maria that Simone invokes with his last words is not his daughter, but his never forgotten long lost lover.
Though due to serendipity rather than well thought out programming, the cast proved to be strong and convincing. A few weeks ago, right before the beginning of the rehearsals, this production of Simon Boccanegra found itself without a conductor, a leading lady and a protagonist. The cast of the performance under review, the second one of the run, was the same as the premiere, with the exception of an indisposed Barbara Frittoli, replaced by Benedetta Torre, who was already scheduled to sing a couple of performances. The Genoa born twenty-one year old Ms. Torre dispelled any suspicion of local favouritism as soon as she opened her mouth. She immediately charmed the audience with her pleasing, sweet, vaguely melancholic timbre, tinged with amber-like shades, supported by a homogeneous, firm voice production, secure in the low and central register and gifted with an easy top all the way up to the quite exposed high Cs of the Act II trio. She effortlessly sailed through the ensembles and mastered her difficult syncopated melody with descending intervals in the finale with impeccable pitch. In the act I ensemble she even performed a good trill on the G sharp 4 on the phrase “di patria carità”. Were I in the mood to split hairs, I could point out that a few floated high notes turned whitish and somewhat straight-toned, such as the B flat at the end of her cavatina. Icing on the cake, Ms. Torre is also a very beautiful young woman with classically graceful features. Having said that, I believe that for the sake of her vocal longevity at the moment she should not venture in a repertoire heavier than Maria Boccanegra. Her vocal and interpretative poise was matched by the well-known ardour and intensity of Gianluca Terranova in one of his most successful roles, Gabriele Adorno. The Italian tenor, who has always thrived in dramatic music that allows him to flaunt the ping of his top register, was however able to tone down his fervour to accomodate the requests of more lyric pages, such as “Cielo di stelle orbato” or the andante religioso, the little duet with the bass, a piece reminiscent of the Messa da Requiem with its uncomfortable tessitura hammering away at the passaggio.
Franco Vassallo was a commendable protagonist. Relying on a healthy voice he portrayed a pained Simone, one with consistent sensitivity, elegance in long phrases and without rant, except for a few cases where his imitation of Cappuccilli was a bit too blatant (“E tu ripeti il giuro!”, or “Fiesco” when he recognises his nemesis in the last act). He was very moving in his death scene, which Verdi’s music treats like a true transfiguration, with a masterful use of the dynamics. Marco Spotti does not quite possess the dark, granitic instrument that the role of Fiesco calls for. This notwithstanding, one cannot but praise the fundamental correctness of his delivery, though he sounds more at ease in the high register than in the nether regions. Gianfranco Montresor was not fully convincing as Paolo Albiani: he lacks incisiveness and is severely limited by the stage director’s view of his character. A clumsy Italian diction pushed John Paul Huckle dangerously close to making a sort of comic straight man out of the important role of Pietro: this is unfortunate, as his bass sounds impressively dark, even black. Kamelia Kader as Amelia’s servant and Giampiero De Paoli as a Captain rounded up the cast.
Stefano Ranzani is an experienced conductor with plenty of qualities and some significant limitations. He undoubtedly possesses the invaluable gift of maintaining an impeccable synchronicity between pit and stage as well as an unvaryingly clean and crisp sound allowing no smudges whatsoever. Thus, pages such as the long introduction to Amelia’s aria and the fine, precious and diaphanous texture of the finale came across with the appropriate crystal clear purity and the right balance among the various sections of the orchestra. Nevertheless, Boccanegra’s tint is implacably dark and lugubrious, and Ranzani did not convey the aura of danger, terror and gloomy desperation pervading the opera. A few examples will suffice: the “death motif” in the introduction to Fiesco’s aria was tossed away without much thought, failing to elicit fear and anguish; the coiling melodic cell that accompanies Simone as he gets closer to the poisoned cup did not communicate malevolence, and even the chord in D minor signalling the exact moment of his swallowing the potion passed unobserved. The chorus, led by Pablo Assante, was excellent as usual.
All things considered, this was a Simone where the whole turned out to be better than the parts, resulting in a fine, engrossing and satisfying performance; such was also deemed by the audience who, albeit not particularly large, bestowed warm and long applauses to everyone involved.
Photo credit: Marcello Orselli