VERDI Simon Boccanegra
Over the decades, Simon Boccanegra has not been recorded blithely. Major studio-made sets capture each successive generation of Verdians – the exception to that pattern being Plácido Domingo’s numerous DVDs, all theatrically convincing in the title-role but bringing a tenor timbre to an opera whose dark palette arises from three major roles for lower male voices. So this new set is a more accurate statement of where Verdi performance stands at the moment. Not as posh as Claudio Abbado on DG or as emotionally direct as the EMI Gabriele Santini set (with Tito Gobbi), this new set has Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja in performances that don’t just measure up to the recorded history but shine different kinds of light on the opera.
The overall production – in this Winter’s Tale plot of a ruler finding his lost daughter – feels polished amid the warm if slightly diffuse acoustics of the Vienna Konzerthaus. Neither orchestra nor chorus have the benefit of opera-house seasoning but conductor Massimo Zanetti has clearly delved into the score, often with slow-ish tempi that convey the sort of gravity reminding you that Simon Boccanegra is the closest Verdi came to adapting King Lear.
One could argue that an opera originating from this more rough-and-tumble period of Verdi’s life shouldn’t have the kind of surface glisten of Abbado’s La Scala set. And certainly, Kristı¯ne Opolais, for all of the expressive impact of her upper register, hasn’t the vocal lushness of many of her predecessors in the role of Amelia (not to mention the style of Victoria de los Angeles on EMI). Luca Pisaroni delivers one of his strongest recorded performances so far, though Carlo Colombara doesn’t project the formidable presence demanded by the role of Fiesco.
Reservations I expressed over Joseph Calleja’s recent aria collections – with pushed, truck-driver singing – are not borne out here. This is the plangent, emotionally vital tenor I loved when he first appeared. To the title-role Hampson brings years of distinguished Verdi singing; now, in his maturity, he can emit a true Doge roar. In the prologue Hampson’s Boccanegra hardly seems like a pirate but later his Lieder-like sense of detail reveals the role in three dimensions with great concision and no excessive fussing with the vocal line. Were it not for the lachrymose contrivances of his death scene (and Tito Gobbi couldn’t resist a bit of that either), this would be one of Hampson’s best recordings.