Back in the Lagoon
GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits La Fenice
for Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'
for Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'
Just a few weeks ago ('Human Tragedy', 5 November 2014) I reviewed Verdi's Simon Boccanegra as the last opera in La Scala's 2013-14 season; there I discussed the long and complex process to reach the opera's third (and normally performed) version in 1881. Now the opera returns to the location of its first version's premiere — La Fenice in Venice on 12 March 1857, this time as the inaugural opera of the 2014-2015 season. As usual, the 1881 third version is being performed. To the best of my memory, the 1857 and 1858 versions have recently had only concert broadcasts, by the BBC in 2001 for the centenary of Verdi's death.
La Fenice is Italy's best managed opera house in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. In a city with only about 55,000 permanent residents but 27 million tourists every year, it is the only Italian opera house running as a semi-repertory theatre with some 220 performances of operas, ballets and concerts every year. It caters mostly to tourists, who, in the evenings, have a choice between overpriced restaurants and good music.
Even though Simon Boccanegra began its performing life in nineteenth century Venice, the opera only made a trip back to the lagoon in 1885 for just three performances. After that, Simon had to wait until 21 January 1950 to see Venice again. This is the seventh La Fenice production since then, and some of these have been quite successful, travelling as far as Japan.
I discussed the opera's background in my 5 November review, so I'll now focus on the specifics of the performance I saw and heard on the 22 November 2014 gala inaugural night. It is quite different from the recent La Scala production in terms of dramaturgy (stage directions, sets and lighting), musical direction and singing.
Firstly, La Fenice seats about a thousand, has a comparatively small stage, and is listed by Unesco as 'a bequest to humanity'. Thus, it cannot be modernized with complex stage machinery. This does not imply that the production team (Andrea De Rosa as director and set designer, Alessandro Lai as costume designer and Pasquale Mari as video designer) had to follow nineteenth century painted backdrops. Instead, they made use of computerized projections and a single set. The projections show the sea and the Liguria coastline at different moments of the day (dawn, sunset and night). As I explained on 5 November, the protagonist is a seaman and, after a long journey in politics, yearns to return to the sea. The single set keeps the sea present on both sides of the stage but transforms the center stage into the Fiesco Palace in Genoa, the Grimaldi Villa on the shore, the Council Chamber in the Government Palace, and a terrace overlooking the Genoa harbor.
According to the libretto, Simon is about twenty-five years old in the Prologue and about fifty during the rest of the opera. Elderly baritones are often chosen for the role; at La Scala a seventy-three-year-old star was alternating with a nearly eighty-year-old former tenor turned baritone. As a result, the drama was more credible in Venice, with its young cast, than in Milan.
Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung grasps the score's ambiguity very well. On the one hand, Verdi looks backward at traditional melodrama forms, but on the other, he travels towards later music dramas such as Otello. We feel this right from the opening E major of the introduction to an opera dominated by minor tonality. The tint is dark as required but with ample room for melodic excursions (such as the two duets in Act I scene 1). Chung's baton is terse, placing emphasis on the woodwind.
Of the vocal cast, the surprise is the not-yet-thirty-year-old Simone Piazzola. At his debut in the title role he offers a very credible 'Simon' both as a young man from the sea and as an imposing ruler of Genoa. He is powerful in the Council Chamber scene and very tender in the duets with his daughter; his diminuendo and pianissimo in the death scene are marvelous. Another pleasant surprise is Julian Kim, whose 'Paolo' is a real precursor of Jago in Otello. Giacomo Prestìa (Fiesco/Grimaldi), Maria Agresta (Amelia/Maria) and Francesco Meli (Gabriele Adorno) are veterans of their respective parts.