The Past is Prologue

Verdi’s so-called “symphonic opera,” Simon Boccanegra, opened Monday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Boccanegra is hardly a staple in the repertory, but when it is performed—and given justice—one is struck at how familiar the opera seems, as reassuring as one’s own grandfather. I feel like I’ve been acquainted with it somehow, when in reality Monday’s prima was my first live exposure to this astonishing gem beyond the unsurpassable Abbado recording. Verdi, ever the master at tugging our heartstrings, compromised not a single note in bringing to life Boccanegra’s universal story, going so far as to revise his work some twenty-four years after its 1857 Venice premiere, transforming it at once into a very human drama that goes straight to all our hearts.
Baritone Thomas Hampson sang the title role. Amelia/Maria was soprano Krassimira Stoyanova. Tenor Frank Lopardo was Gabriele. Fiesco was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was Paolo. All five principals offered riveting performances that were slightly marred by opening night imperfections, for which the evening’s conductor must take the blame. Under Andrew Davis’ baton, Verdi’s gorgeous score seemed bereft of eloquence that this music so desperately requires. Certain key moments in the drama such as the moving climax of the “recognition scene” between father and daughter went by without fanfare. Davis is not a Verdi conductor. The meat of this opera is, of course, the Council Chamber scene. Boccanegra without it is akin to Onegin without the Letter Scene. When everyone on stage (and pit) conspire to set this scene on fire, the effect is extraordinary, unlike anything in Verdi. Monday night’s rendition of this volcanic episode came close to setting the Lyric stage aflame. Stoyanova’s piercing cries of “pace” helped to ignite it, but was put out by the conductor’s unimaginative wand.
The Bulgarian soprano, who is making her Lyric début, sang her first and only aria, “Come in quest'ora bruna,” with mellifluous grace that recalled Mirella Freni’s golden-voiced Amelia, except that Stoyanova’s is more lachrymose in timbre than honeyed à la the beautiful Mirella. What was missing in Stoyanova’s voice is a Gheorghiu-style urgency; that, and some old-school diva abandon à la Millo, from whom she can take a masterclass. Hampson’s Boccanegra—vocally—is not one for the ages. There are no incidental joys to be had in listening to him. As there are no opportunities to bask in the warmth and beauty of the baritone voice, for his has none whatsoever; if it can be likened to an ice-cream flavor, it would have to be vanilla. But, as an artist, he says more about his character’s life story through his impeccable musicianship than could any Boccanegra with the voice of God. Looking pale and gaunt in his death scene, he was Boccanegra. Other cast members weren’t so convincing. Lopardo’s heroic Gabriele vocalized unabashedly, as though he were singing Lohengrin, cracking a note or two in the course of his duet with his betrothed. His voice is as unreliable as a weather forecast; in fact, it seemed to hover in the air like a traveling cloud that gave no hint whether it might rain or not. Kelsey was a domineering Paolo, in voice but more so in demeanor. Vocal honors must go to the Fiesco of Furlanetto. With a voice that could plunge the deepest ocean depths, he dominated the stage with his voice alone. After last season’s victorious Godunov, the Lyric stage is artistically richer with him on it. The rest of the cast were in fine form throughout a long evening of heavy, testosterone-fueled vocal matches.
The production, borrowed from Covent Garden, was directed by Elijah Moshinsky, with not a whiff of modernism about it. (After a disturbing David McVicar staging of Elektra now playing at Lyric, so much for the better!) The sets are handsome enough to be visually satisfying: imposing ivory pillars stood proudly like Genoese skyscrapers, while the Council Chamber interior resembled a D.C. memorial park. (See photo above, by Dan Rest.) The lighting by Jason Brown was evocative of the paintings of Georges de Latour; the stage looked as if it were lit by candlelight. The Peter J. Hall-designed costumes worn by the men were splendid: brocades and damasks in an autumnal palette of reds and oranges that seemed borrowed from Tintoretto. Amelia’s frock looked sedate in comparison to what her father wore, which could set any geisha an example in elegant carriage.