Review: Verdian Back to Basics – San Francisco Opera’s Satisfying “Simon Boccanegra”, September 21, 2008

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley assumed the leadership of the Bay Area’s operatic powerhouse at the beginning of 2006, and has done a creditable job of changing the direction of the company that had seemed to have disconnected itself from its traditional standards of excellence and from the interests and desires of its audiences.

Scrapping some of his predecessor’s opera and/or production choices, he was soon able to put his stamp on the venerable company.  He has launched two world premieres, and imported several impressive productions of Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Handel and Gluck new to San Francisco.

In the case of operas of Giacomo Puccini, always popular with San Francisco audiences, he has presented well-received productions of “Manon Lescaut” and “La Rondine” borrowed from Chicago and Toulouse, and appears well into plans for a full cycle of Puccini’s works.

Many Wagnerians had grumbled about the fare San Francisco presented during the first half of the decade (and some still have their issues about some of the Wagner on the Gockley watch), and the Russian offerings this decade have been a letdown from the repertory-expanding 1990s.

Even so,  the group of works most needing attention are the operas of Verdi.

Whatever Gockley’s predecessor , Pamela Rosenberg, thinks about Verdian opera, her production choices proved indefensible.  She rented a production of “Il Trovatore” from the Seattle Opera (which in this decade has promoted a very traditional Wagner “Ring” while trashing “Trovatore”) so terrible that normally polite San Franciscans learned how to boo.

Rosenberg’s adventuristic Seattle disaster was compounded by investing the San Francisco Opera’s then scarce budgetary resources with a new production of “La Forza del Destino” so wretched that the trashy Seattle “Trovatore” seemed almost not too bad in comparison.

After his appointment, Gockley attempted to make some amends with the San Francisco audiences, by canceling, wherever possible, Rosenberg’s Eurotrashiest production commitments. In one case, he substituted “Rigoletto” for Paolo Gavanelli and Mary Dunleavy in San Francisco Opera’s uneven Michael Yeargan production to replace another opera to which Rosenberg had committed. Although there was much to like about the 2006 “Rigoletto”, the last minute change left the production stuck with surely the smallest-voiced Duke of Mantua in San Francisco Opera history.

Gockley’s first fall season opening night was the 2006 “Ballo in Maschera” with a somewhat more even cast.  However, by scrubbing the unsatisfactory production Rosenberg originally chose, it became clear that San Francisco’s elegant “Ballo” sets were among the many destroyed on Rosenberg’s watch, so that he had to buy a clunky “Ballo” production from Florida Grand Opera to replace what was needlessly discarded.

[Below: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the young corsair Simon Boccanegra; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

F0r 2007, Gockley found himself locked into purchasing another Rosenberg production choice from Zurich Opera, a “Macbeth”. The lusty booing of the production designer and stage director must have set a decibel record at War Memorial Opera House record (none of the booing aimed at Thomas Hampson performing brilliantly in the title role).

Still lacking an unambiguous Verdi home run, Gockley surely looked forward to the 2008-09 season opener, “Simon Boccanegra”, presented (as it had been in San Francisco in 2001 and as opening night of the Houston Grand Opera’s 2006-07 season) in Covent Garden’s attractive production, originally conceived by Elijah Moshinsky.

For Houston, he had arranged for Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s role debut as Simon. With the Gockley move to San Francisco, he signed the Siberian superstar to appear in the same role and production two years later in the Bay Area.

When Gockley was hired, it was pretty clear that his new administration would be expected to secure the world’s leading operatic singers for the many disgruntled San Francisco opera subscribers, who in earlier decades had been accustomed to the world’s operatic stars taking part in each season.

Of the contemporary stars of the first rank, some, like Hvorostovsky, had appeared reasonably often in San Francisco, but others, such as Barbara Frittoli, had never been engaged.  Gockley signed Frittoli to perform five of the seven scheduled “Boccanegra” performances, alternating with Ana Maria Martinez.

[Below: Simon Boccanegra (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) discovers that Maria Amelia (Barbara Frittoli) is his long lost daughter; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

For the other principal roles, Ukrainian basso Vitalij Kowaljow was cast as Fiesco, Marcus Haddock was the Gabriele Adorno and Patrick Carfizzi was Paolo. Donald Runnicles, who conducted the 2001 San Francisco performances, returned to the podium for the 2008 “Simon”.

David Edwards, from Covent Garden, as in 2001 was the stage director. In 2001 he and Michael Yeargan had made significant changes in the Moshinsky production for San Francisco, and even more changes were in evidence in Edwards’ 2008 S. F. production.

[Below: Act II of the unit set, with Marcus Haddock as Gabriele Adorno, center, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Simon Boccanegra) and Barbara Frittoli (Maria Amelia) on the dais; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Covent Garden production of “Simon” obviously has the flexibilility to be altered somewhat for different houses.  In point of fact, the 2008 production in San Francisco differs from that shown in Houston in 2006, directed by Moshinsky. For example, the Houston variation had two scenes in front of walls on which political graffiti were written, varying in content with the popular mood at the time of the Prologue and in a later era 25 years into Boccanegra’s dogeship.

The 2008 San Francisco version has been reorganized, redressed and relighted.  Even conceding the differences in production detail were not fundamental, the latest San Francisco mounting of the production seemed especially free flowing and dramatic, surely incorporating the experience of several years of working with these impressive sets.

In my estimation, the production’s sea-blue coloring  and Mediterranean look – even a glimpse of distant ship – seems quite appropriate for an opera concerned with the affairs of Genoa and, in Simon’s backstory, the sea lanes and islands along the Ligurian Coastline.

I have never felt that the 1881 revised version of “Simon Boccanegra” deserves its reputation in some circles as being too sombre. But, as David Hockney has proved with his colorful “Tristan und Isolde” sets for Los Angeles Opera, a brightly colored production can often offset the supposed gloominess of an opera’s story.

The performance

Runnicles’ conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, was, as usual, spectacular. Regular readers have come to expect my praise of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (especially with Runnicles at the podium) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and I can report that all performed up to my very high expectations.

Soon we are involved in the political scheming of the villainous Paolo, played by Patrick Carfizzi. It was on the War Memorial Opera House stage in 2001 that Carfizzi, then San Francisco Opera’s cover for Nikolai Putilin’s Paolo, was able to step into this role, in the second act of one performance, for the entire opera for the next performance.

(Putilin, though singing his scheduled Paolos, was covering Paolo Gavanelli’s Simon, and Gavanelli’s indisposition caused his withdrawal in mid-performance and cancellation of the subsequent performance, the one which I saw that year.  Since Carfizzi was also the Paolo in the Houston production cited below, I have seen his Paolo in three different years this decade.)

Carfizzi’s Paolo has emerged as truly sinister and vocally very effective.  The performance really suggested that this will be a signature role for the young bass baritone.

[Below: Paolo (Patrick Carfizzi), in the process of poisoning Simon’s drink; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Pietro, Paolo’s political operative was played this year by Adler Fellow Kenneth Kellogg. One assumes he is aware that the last Pietro was Raymond Aceto, who has emerged as one of this decade’s superb bassos and that San Francisco predecessors in this relatively small role include Lorenzo Alvary (1941) and Kevin Langan (1980).

The prologue introduces us to Simon Boccanegra.  Although it is a recent addition to Hvorostovsky’s repertoire, he has made this quintessential Verdi baritone role his own. He has a rich, full-bodied baritone and demonstrates mastery of the role’s difficult range. He shows that an accomplished operatic actor, especially one with an attractive stage presence, can gain the audience’s involvement in a story that some regard as offputting.

Hvorostovsky will have no trouble holding his own in the pantheon of San Francisco Simons  – Lawrence Tibbett (1941), Leonard Warren (1956), Tito Gobbi (1960), Ingvar Wixell (1975), Renato Bruson (1980), Paolo Gavanelli and Nicolai Putilin (2001).  (I have heard each of these famous performers in this role at S. F. Opera, except Tibbett and Gavanelli.)

[Below: Vitalij Kowaljow as Jacopo Fiesco; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

But the dominant presence of the Prologue is Fiesco, whose great basso aria Il lacerato spirito is the first important set piece of the opera. Before Vitalij Kowaljow, only six men had performed Fiesco for the San Francisco Opera – Ezio Pinza (1941), Boris Christoff (1956), Giorgio Tozzi (1960), Martti Talvela (1975), Cesare Siepi (1980) and Samuel Ramey (2001).

Since these six are among the most important operatic bassos of the past seven decades, one might ask – whether or not the question is a polite one – whether Kowaljow could be considered as in the same league.

I believe that the answer is affirmative. Kowaljow is one of the rising basso cantante stars of this decade, with a beautiful bass voice, sonorous throughout the bass range, and particularly suited to Verdi’s music.

Having heard in recent months Kowaljow, Raymond Aceto and Hoa Jiang Tian all in Verdian roles, I believe that we will not lack for great Verdian bass singing in the years to come.

I had seen Kowaljow once before, as a notable Pimen in San Diego Opera’s production of the Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”.

San Diego had mounted the rarely performed 1869 version for Ferruccio Furlanetto (in which the part of Pimen is much larger than the revised version that is traditionally done. [See Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007.]

Kowaljow is repeating the role of Pimen in San Francisco Opera’s first performances of the 1869 “Boris”, whose performances begin next month.

(In the organization of this review there is no place to mention the smaller roles, but I will add this paranthesis to note the very nicely sung Captain by San Francisco Opera chorister Dale Tracy.)

Frittoli as Amelia and Haddock as Adorno each have tricky solo arias, and each performed creditably.  However, in both cases the greatest contribution to a great performance was in the duets, trios and ensembles in which Amelia or Adorno take part.

[Below: Marcus Haddock is Gabriele Adorno; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Gabriele Adorno is one of the most fascinating of Verdi’s tenor roles.  Gabriele, like Tamino in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”,  is taking part in what he thinks is a battle of good and evil, discovers that he is on the wrong side of the battle with the woman he has come to love, switches sides, and benefits from his change of heart.

In fact, as a reward for his defection, shortly afterwards he marries Amelia, gains the Doge of Genoa as his father-in-law and a few hours later is proclaimed Doge himself. Few tenor roles are written to result in such happy consequences.

This past Spring, Covent Garden presented “Simon Boccanegra” with Haddock as Gabriele Adorno, but the Moshinsky-Edwards-Yeargan sets, created for the 1881 version of “Simon”, were not used.  Instead, they presented their 1997 Ian Judge production that had been created for the Royal Opera House’s 1857 version of “Simon”.

So, Haddock, whose role debut was in the minimalist Robert Innes Hopkins production at Santa Fe Opera in 2004 and has since appeared in the Giancarlo del Monaco’s production at the Metropolitan Opera, is getting to know his way around the world’s current productions of the opera.

Haddock, whom I would characterize as a lyric tenor with an appealing squillo was very effective in a role that I believe best fits a heavier voice. His voice blended beautifully with Kowaljow in their superb duet Vieni a me, ti benedico. He carried Adorno’s lines in the Grand Council ensemble. But it was his lead in the climactic trio Perdon, perdon Amelia with Hvorostovsky and Frittoli that was particularly affecting.

[Below: Barbara Frittoli as Maria Amelia; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Likewise, Barbara Frittoli was impressive in the duets with Hvorostovsky.  Father-daughter duets, of course, abound in Verdian opera, and those in “Simon” rank among the best of this characteristic feature of the Maestro’s operas.

The final trios with Hvorostovsky and Haddock were artistic triumphs, as was her prominent part in the great ensemble in the Council scene.

A final note on this excellent performance.  The stage direction by David Edwards was particularly effective, even for this production in which every scene has been carefully thought through over several different runs in opera houses throughout the world.

Tiny touches abound.  Simon, having just observed his lover’s body on the catafalque in Fiesco’s house, is expected (from the text of the libretto he sings) to seem distracted by the crowds proclaiming him Doge, but Hvorostovsky’s Simon is clearly dazed, confused and frightened at his election. At Simon’s death, Amelia places the locket of her mother on Simon’s body.

San Francisco Opera has a reputation for pulling out the stops when “Simon Boccanegra” is scheduled, and, with 2008 performances that can be compared with glorious achievements of past years, “Simon Boccanegra” can be declared the first unqualified success with Verdian opera of the Gockley administration.

For relevant reviews of previous performances of this opera, see: Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006 and

Simon Boccanegra – October 20, 1956