Mrs G was having a long weekend in Morocco so I settled down with a bottle of sangiovese to watch this 2002 production of Simon Boccanegra from the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence. Unfortunately I finished the wine before I finished the opera and I fell asleep during the third act. However, I did have particularly mellifluous dreams so the following evening, fortified only by a cup of coffee, I watched the third act again.
But to begin at the beginning. Simon Boccanegra was a huge flop at its first production in Venice in 1857 and it was not until 1881, after Verdi called in that well-known 19th century script-doctor Arrigo Boito that a virtually rewritten Simon had some measure of success at La Scala. One problem is that the plot requires a greater knowledge of 14th century Italian politics than most people are willing to acquire. It reminds me of some of Shakespeare's later comedies, particularly Pericles, in the way Simon loses his infant daughter and finds her again 25 years later. Verdi and Boito worked magic with their two, late, Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff but, even with Boito's considerable skill as a librettist, there was no way that Verdi was going to shoehorn all the politics and plot of Simon into two hours or so of opera.
Another possible reason for Simon's relative lack of popularity is that there is only one female role. Fortunately, in this production, the excellent Karita Matilla plays Maria/Amelia. The conventional love interest is provided by the tenor Vincenzo La Scola as Gabriele. But this opera really is a showcase for bass and baritone. Andrea Concetti is very effective as Paolo, the nearest this opera gets to a conventional villain. He poisons Simon during Act II and, this being a special operatic poison, Simon manages to survive throughout Act III before expiring gracefully. I was glad that I watched this final act again because the highlight of the entire work is the baritone-bass duet between Carlo Guelfi's Simon and the Fiesco of Julian Konstantinov.
If you are a Verdian completist, it will be well worth your while viewing this excellent production from Florence. It uses simple but effective sets, usually a black or dark blue diorama and the scene and mood is effectively established by costume and lighting. It contains some achingly beautiful music, ably interpreted by conductor Claudio Abbado. I was struck by the restraint of the Florentine audience. Some of the barnstorming arias that would have brought the house down at La Scala are greeted by complete silence. Perhaps this restraint is a reflection of Abbado's performance. As the last strains die away we see an anguished Abbado with his hand raised forbidding applause until the silence becomes overwhelming.
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