Boccanegra botch-up

Antony CraigWed 14th July 2010

Fiesco fiasco mars night that was meant to be all about Domingo

Compromise can sometimes be the worst of all possible worlds. When Ferruccio Furlanetto lost his voice before the performance of Simon Boccanegra that was due to be broadcast from the Royal Opera House to big screens throughout the UK, that old stalwart John Tomlinson stood in for the key role of Jacopo Fiesco – except that he didn’t. Mr Furlanetto wandered around the stage gesticulating while Mr Tomlinson sang, behind a music stand, from the wings.

When Fiesco was back of stage left duetting with a centre-stage Boccanegra, facing him (and not the audience), it was disorientating (not to say bizarre) for Fiesco’s voice to be emanating from the front of stage right. Even if Tomlinson had been in really good voice (which, arguably, he was for the low notes but emphatically was not for the high ones) I would have questioned this decision. Surely this fiasco could have been averted – why did Tomlinson not just take over the role? Doesn’t Covent Garden believe in understudies these days? Is it impossible to find someone suitable to play a repertoire bass role at short notice?

All of which cast an unexpected light on an evening where one had expected to be concentrating on the assumption of the title role by a superstar (“Don’t worry, he’s fine,” Covent Garden’s director of Opera Elaine Padmore had sought to reassure the audience beforehand) – but singing outside of his comfort zone. So I should say that Plácido Domingo sang a fine Doge and looked suitably statesmanlike (although these performances do have a valedictory feel about them).

No one would question that Domingo is one of the greatest tenors. Simon Boccanegra is one of Verdi’s most magnificent baritone roles. Tito Gobbi produced the Covent Garden premiere in 1965 (the palpable excitement at the time matched that surrounding the current cycle of performances) and remains unrivalled in the title role (hear the astonishing recording from 1957 with Gobbi, Victoria de los Angeles and Boris Christoff, originally released on EMI and now available on Naxos 8.110119-20). Domingo lacks the baritonal splendour Gobbi would evince and I want a greater vocal depth from my Doge, but one cannot deny that Domingo has the presence to carry off an impressive performance and both the recognition scene with a gorgeous Maria (Amelia) from Marina Poplavskaya and the trio with the addition of Joseph Calleja’s Gabriele Adorno made the spine tingle. Calleja is a glorious tenor (of the Flórez generation) and while it might be contentious to suggest that he and Poplavskaya stole the evening’s vocal honours, they were certainly no makeweights. 

My reservations notwithstanding, this was a musically inspired performance (Pappano in charge) to be savoured and remembered – and one that does nothing to counter my conviction that, despite its clumsy construction (Boito’s late revision of Piave’s libretto can’t overcome completely the opera’s awkward and untheatrical structure), Boccanegra deserves to be considered one of the very greatest works in the operatic canon.

Antony Craig

Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.

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