Sunday, February 12, 2012


Placido Domingo stands in resistance in Simon Boccanegra Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
As I was just saying, while Los Angeles Opera is offering far less ambitious programming for the near future, so far the decline in their fortunes has not led to a decline in the overall quality of the productions. And if you don’t believe me, you should check out the first-rate Simon Boccanegra the company opened on Saturday night. This is musically, and more importantly dramatically, compelling Verdi with more than just a pulse, but a raging earnest heartbeat that can be heard and felt at great distances. The marketing for the show, understandably, show’s off one of the company’s biggest assets, General Director Placido Domingo who stars here in the title role. The world’s most famous tenor has moved into singing baritone roles in these late stages of his career, and Boccanegra is a part he’s sung just about everywhere resulting in, count ‘em, three separate DVDs that are all currently available. And his presence certainly filled seats on opening night in L.A. But while the focus on Domingo is warranted, it risks overlooking a wonderful ensemble cast that makes this show more than just a star vehicle.

First there’s Ana Maria Martinez who sounded vocally richer and more assured last night than I remember her previously. She apparently has developed into a bit of a Verdi soprano recently if this performance is any indication. She floats some lovely pianissimos and has a much firmer grasp on the more girlish, innocent aspects of Amelia’s character than most sopranos do. On the bad guy side, Paolo Gavanelli gave one of his always remarkable performances as Paolo Albiani, infusing a character that can take a back seat in some stagings with real pathos. He was well matched with the show’s other heavy, Fiesco, who was sung by L.A. favorite Vitalij Kowaljow. In an evening whose vocal music has been brightened by Domingo’s tenor presence, Kowajow and Gavanelli kept a sense of balance. And then there was the pleasant surprise of Stefano Secco. After some pinched and strained singing as Faust in San Francisco in 2010, he managed to deliver a far more comfortable and varied turn here as Amelia’s lover Gabriele Adorno. Verdi seems better suited for his voice, and much like his Don Carlo, the role of Adorno allowed him to flex some muscle without leaving him overexposed.

Everyone gets their moment to shine in this cast, but the person who holds it all together is James Conlon who again led the orchestra in a propulsive, lusty performance. The players sounded bright and polished closely following the overall timbre of the vocal casting. There was no down time in the show, which seemed to fly by despite its many scene changes. And then there is Domingo himself. As I’ve said before about his performance of this role, what is lost in the darker shadings of Boccanegra’s vocal part are more than made up for by the tenor’s unquestionable acting abilities. He commands the stage and connects immediately with everyone—cast and audience. No one ever looks aloof or disconnected here, and Domingo fully realizes the tragedy Verdi laid out in Boccanegra’s eventual downfall.

If I had any qualm with the evening, it was with Elijah Moshinsky’s rather uninspired staging. He does manage to expertly flesh out the relationships between the characters this time around, but the physical aspects of the staging can be tedious. The production, which was originally staged at the Royal Opera House and was seen in San Francisco as recently as 2008, consists of a single hall bordered on one side by rows of columns, which are open to the sea and sky. And while it places the action in Genoa’s seaside milieu, there is little other change from scene to scene other than a backdrop or two or a table here and there. It’s attractive and functional, but ultimately forgettable. I think it worked a bit better this time around than during my last exposure to it in San Francisco, and this may be largely due to the chemistry between Domingo and the rest of the onstage players. There also seemed to be some difficulty with the lighting on Saturday as some of the scenes were so dark it was hard to clearly distinguish what was going on from a distance. But production aside, this is a winner of an evening with musical and dramatic qualities that outpace any quibbles. And best of all, it bodes well for the highlight of LAO’s upcoming season, which opens in September with most of the same artistic players coming together on a similar project, Verdi’s I due Foscari with Domingo as baritone, James Conlon on the podium, and a promising supporting cast.

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