Music saves clunky plot, uninspired staging of Verdi’s ‘Problem Opera’

By George Jahn, AP
Saturday, December 12, 2009

Oh that plot! But lovely music in ‘Problem Opera’

VIENNA — A word of warning. If you hate operatic cliches, give Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” a pass.

No amount of wonderful music hides the fact that this work is riddled with the stuff that opera haters love to hate, and so it was in Saturday night’s production at the Vienna State Opera.

A ruler finds his long-lost daughter. But she loves his sworn enemy. He and others sworn to everlasting hatred plot to end his life. At the end, he dies, having forgiven all of those who tried to do him wrong except the dastardly villain who poisoned him, who is led off to face the executioner’s ax.

Even Verdi wasn’t happy with the first version, reworking it musically and having Arrigo Boito doing a major work-over on the libretto. The revised version had its premiere in Vienna Nov. 18, 1882, more than 20 years after his first attempt met with a lukewarm reception.

The rework did little to change the improbability of the plot. But as in most Verdi operas, the music is the thing — even though this works has a paucity of the hummable arias that are common to many of the Italian maestro’s later works.

All the more enjoyable was Ferruccio Furlanetto’s “Il lacerato spirito.”

Furlanetto owns the role of Fiesco, whose daughter dies after being seduced by Simon Boccanegra, Venice’s ruler to be, but only after giving birth to a girl. (The plot thickens.) His nuanced delivery of this aria displayed the sonority of his voice in the lower bass registers, with each line lucid and tightly focused.

Writing of the role of Fiesco, Verdi wrote: “He has to have something inexorable, prophetic in his voice.” He could have been talking about Furlanetto.

Olga Guryakova shone as Maria, Fiesco’s granddaughter, who is reunited with Boccanegra just in time to prevent her lover from killing her just rediscovered father. (Are you still with us?) Her huge voice soared over the orchestra. Her delivery was pointed. And her stage presence captivating.

Not so for Franz Grundheber as Boccanegra.

He sounded, reedy, wobbly and simply not up to the role. Invariably in the ensemble parts his voice was lost between the orchestra, Guryakova and Fabio Sartori, Saturday’s Adorno.

Adorno is Maria’s lover, and just as the two are an on-stage pair, Sartori’s powerful, liquid tenor was the perfect match Guryakova’s lovely vocal rendition of her role.

As Paolo, who first helps Boccanegra to the throne only to poison him after being denied Maria’s hand, Boaz Daniel was the perfect villain. He skulks with the best of today’s performers on the operatic stage.

Conductor Yves Abel provided a strong orchestral underpinning to Saturday’s performance. Only Grundheber proved unequal to his occasionally over-robust fortissimos.

And with all that was going on stage — murders, love scenes, full-drawn battles — director Peter Stein and his crew opted to keep things simple rather than trying to keep up with the action. Effects were mostly achieved by lighting, except for a lovely Act 1, Scene 2 Renaissance tableau.

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