Lyric Opera makes a glorious case for Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’
BY ANDREW PATNER October 16, 2012 5:52PM
Frank Lopardo (left) and Thomas Hampson, in the title role, performs during the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Civic Opera House on Friday, October 12, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media
◆ Through Nov. 9
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Updated: November 18, 2012 7:00AM
Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director and one of the world’s great Verdi conductors, recently said, “When people speak of ‘early Verdi,’ ‘late Verdi,’ ‘problem Verdi,’ ‘popular Verdi,’ I don’t know what they are talking about. Verdi is Verdi, and it is a privilege to work on or listen to any or all of his operas. It is a story of music.”
Even without Muti’s involvement, it’s hard to imagine a stronger case for Verdi than Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new presentation of “Simon Boccanegra,” which opened Monday night with great success at the Civic Opera House.
Chicago producers and audiences love this otherwise too little heard work. Although this is Lyric’s first staging in 17 years, it’s the company’s seventh outing with this opera, which tells of an early Renaissance pirate turned Doge of Genoa, guilt-ridden by his checkered love life and parental irresponsibility. Since 1959, Tito Gobbi took the title role for three runs (and even directed), and Piero Cappuccilli, Sherrill Milnes and Alexandre Agache followed, with such other renowned singers as Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi, Ruggerio Raimondi, Martina Arroyo and Kiri Te Kanawa taking other key parts here.
This time, it’s Thomas Hampson’s turn. At 57, the American baritone is at the height of his acting and characterization powers, even if an unannounced indisposition Monday limited some of his high notes and caused vocal strain at times. This is a dark and inward work, introduced in Venice in 1857 to puzzled response and successfully reworked by Verdi almost a quarter-century later, for La Scala in 1881. At every moment, Hampson makes it clear this is a man struggling with the questions of morality, leadership, aging, service and heartache.
The remarkable Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is Fiesco, Boccanegra’s sworn enemy, the father of the Doge’s dead and disgraced lover, and grandfather of his lost child. Now 63, Furlanetto had to wait until last season to make his Lyric debut, as a highly praised Boris Godunov. Furlanetto alone invests so much humanity into his part — not to mention strength and warmth throughout its wide range — that the idea that Verdi is only about blood vengeance is pushed far out of mind. Furlanetto’s performance as he handles the old man’s many changing moods and encounters is like a great master class.
Muti introduced Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova to Chicago in his remarkable CSO “Otello” two seasons back. As Maria/Amelia, Stoyanova was vocally admirable at every turn but lacked the theatrical abilities of her male elders. American tenor Frank Lopardo gave one of his finest Lyric performances as Adorno, Amelia’s suitor, and Simon’s eventual ally and successor.
A bigger breakout came from former Ryan Center baritone Quinn Kelsey as Paolo, the courtier who is so purely bad that even he seems puzzled as to why. Kelsey’s voice, color and phrasing were clear, dark and exciting. Furlanetto told Opera News recently that Kelsey could become the Verdi baritone we’ve been waiting for for years. Current Ryan members bass Evan Boyer, tenor Bernard Holcomb and mezzo J’nai Bridges acquitted themselves admirably, as did the Lyric Chorus under its new chorus master Martin Wright, whose direction toward subtlety matched that of the singers in their many ensembles.
Music director Andrew Davis had his best evening in the Italian repertoire that I’ve heard, and in a work without big, known “numbers,” the orchestra and its depiction of mood and coastal geography is key. Director Elijah Moshinsky was at his best here, too, staging as if we are witnesses to an actual human drama. Michael Yeargan’s Covent Garden sets, almost historic by now, appear to have been buffed back into freshness, as have Peter J. Hall’s period costumes, out of a Genovese painting. Duane Schuler’s lighting, re-created by Jason Brown, made darkness illuminating.
This is Verdi for the ages. So leave prejudices and questions at home and turn yourself over to a chapter in the story of music.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).