Cher Public

Doge days

Boccanegra 1That Placido Domingo and James Levine, the Met’s inexorable septuagenarians, would team up yet again—on April Fools’ Day, no less—for a revival of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra occasioned an uncomfortable degree of doubt and dread. 

Over the past decade Domingo’s embrace of some of opera’s greatest baritone roles has been controversial to say the least, while Levine’s debilitating health issues have caused havoc with his duties at the Met as both conductor and music director. Boccanegra proved an honorable, occasionally marvelous yet grossly flawed stab at one of Verdi’s most penetrating explorations of paternal love.

Bumpy Levine-led performances in the fall of both Tannhäuser and Die Fledermaus vexed many, and his shocking withdrawal from the new production of Lulu caused real alarm about his abilities. Eventually rumors began swirling that the Met was planning to announce that he would step down as music director at the end of next season. Then an astonishing piece by Michael Cooper appeared in The New York Times which revealed intimate details about the conductor’s new treatment regimen and possible improved prognosis. Word was that Peter Gelb would be closely monitoring the Boccanegra rehearsals for signs of improvement… or decline.

Apparently matters proceeded without incident as a beaming Levine rose Friday to acknowledge the audience with his current mixture of beaming smiles and elfin waves. The orchestra immediately proved itself in fine form, particularly the lower strings, which reveled in the evocative prelude to Boccanegra’s prologue.

His sweeping gestures displayed none of the flailing about that had surfaced in Tannhäuser. Apparently Levine had his hands full with the orchestra as he sometimes ignored what was transpiring on stage. More than once singers ran into trouble and got little help from the maestro, and the thrilling choral explosion in the Council Chamber scene nearly ran off the rails.

Although lately it’s been difficult to staunch one’s anxiety during a Levine performance, Boccanegra was equivocally reassuring as he struck me as more in command than he had been earlier in the season. And yet the parlous state of the musical leadership at the Met remains: perhaps Levine will continue to improve and fulfill his conducting commitments, but why must he also remain music director? I have heard from more than one party that the orchestra, while remaining a very fine ensemble, has been steadily slipping from its earlier exalted status due to Levine’s frequent absences and impaired state.

Surely no one, except perhaps Levine himself, would perceive a transition to emeritus status as a demotion. Someone new could then take a close look at what the Met needs now—for the first time in decades and decades it would be getting a fresh perspective.

Boccanegra 3Domingo ,who made his Met debut three years before Levine, is also a house institution, and his continued presence there is almost as fraught with controversy. Since his Oreste in 2007’s Iphigénie en Tauride (which some tried to argue—unconvincingly—was really a low tenor role), he has exclusively sung baritone roles there.

Perhaps one might forgive his rhythmically inept, stylistically-at-sea Neptune in the disastrous The Enchanted Island, but his remote, underpowered Don Carlo in last season’s Ernani was a shocking flop—no wonder he canceled the Saturday broadcast. I missed his Germont which some suggested worked well, but I did catch his 2010 Boccanegra which was touching particularly in comparison to Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s chilly, self-regarding doge the following season.

Yet that earlier Boccanegra sounded all wrong—an aging still vibrant tenor bobbing and weaving his way through one of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles. My ear, conditioned by Piero Cappuccilli’s live and commercial recordings, just couldn’t get used to Domingo’s sound. Friday’s performance was even more alarming as his singing has hardened and become increasingly short-breathed, his stage persona more distracted.

While his dark tenor retains an enviable steadiness and he can occasionally still pump out a good deal of volume, it can’t provide the richness and amplitude one wants for the role, particularly in the lyrical reunion duet with Amelia which fell flat, although he managed a respectable floating “Figlia!” at its conclusion. Verdi deserves better—a real baritone not a 75-year-old superstar tenor struggling through music he shouldn’t be singing in the first place.

Eight years Domingo’s junior, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto returned in one of his most acclaimed roles. His was a particularly fierce and unforgiving Fiesco though he brought a surprisingly poignant concern for the dying Boccanegra to the final scene. The last time I heard him was three years ago as Philip II in the appalling Lorin Maazel-led Don Carlo where he sounded labored and unsteady and perhaps ready to consider retirement. On Friday he took some time to warm up so his gravelly “Il lacerato spirito” began poorly, but by his heavenly benediction of Gabriele in the first act, he sounded like his old self.

After his illness-plagued run of Lucia last season, Joseph Calleja reappeared in fine form as Adorno, his idiosyncratic tenor ringing out excitingly. Although his unusually quick and prominent vibrato drives some people crazy, I’ve always been fond of it although it seems a bit less pronounced these days as the voice grows bigger. Although he remains an earnest, if clumsy actor, he handled Adorno’s demanding second-act scena with ease.

Boccanegra 2Calleja has always been cautious in building his career, but he now sounds ready for increasingly dramatic roles. Don José in Carmen figures prominently in his future plans, and one wonders what new projects he might be considering.

Lianna Haroutounian made her Met debut last season in a one-night-stand as Elisabetta in Don Carlo but as Amelia Grimaldi gets the entire run this time. An indifferent, placid actress, she brought a sizable enthusiastic soprano to her grateful music. After Levine’s delicate prelude, her “Come in quest’ora bruna” lumbered along without taking flight. It became increasingly clear that the middle of the voice was not her glory and the most she could manage lower down was a bit of “baby” chest. Calleja’s entrance loosened her up and they partnered excitingly in Amelia and Gabriele’s highly-charged duet.

Soon Haroutounian revealed her strength—big soaring high notes which dominated Council Chamber Scene and the superb trio that concludes the second act. After Adrianne Pieczonka and Barbara Frittoli’s more modestly-scaled recent Amelias, I had to go back to Anna Tomowa-Sintow in my first Boccanegra to recall another soprano who so ably sailed over the chorus and orchestra. One must however note that her quiver of talents lacks a trill, so the enchanting ornaments that crown the big Act I ensemble were barely indicated.

For some reason baritone Brian Mulligan has performed only infrequently at the Met: less than a dozen times over the past dozen years. But his boldly trenchant Paolo immediately seized one’s attention while his cowering whispered “Sia maledetto” brought the amazing first act finale to a chilling conclusion. He was ably partnered by Richard Bernstein, whose expert Pietro has been a valued feature of the previous three revivals of Boccanegra.

Eric Einhorn dutifully revived Giancarlo Del Monaco’s staid 20 year old production but failed to whip up much energy or chemistry between his cast members. Domingo’s flamboyant mortal fall brought appreciative gasps but it played like a stunt that distracted from Boccanegra’s poignant, quiet death. Michael Scott’s splendidly luxurious costumes and sumptuously old-fashioned sets still dazzle, particularly the Veronese-influenced Council Chamber scene, but the sets require numbingly long scene changes which defuse the opera’s momentum.

While it’s likely Boccanegra wouldn’t have been revived without Domingo, his maddeningly compromised portrayal resulted in more frustration than satisfaction. Yet it would be foolish to miss a frequently satisfying opportunity to experience this extraordinary opera, however frustrating the lacuna at its center.

  • Operanaut

    Good to see Brian Mulligan singled out for praise. I thought he was terrific.

    • Mulligan was a great Enrico in Toronto a couple of years ago. What a voice!!

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Why one of the most celebrated tenors of the twentieth century wants to be remembered as the worst Verdi baritones of the twenty first? And why the most celebrated conductor in the Met’s history wants to be remembered as the conductor who was forced out? Beats me. The last impression is always the strongest in the memory lane and part of one’s legacy. Do they have a any real and intellectually honest friends? BTW, thanks for your astute and excellent review that I always treasure.

    • me

      It’s well known that the elderly in all professions (or actions) don’t want to “retire.” Be they lawyers, amateur car drivers, doctors, judges… people invested in their work for their identity and lifestyle don’t want to stop, regardless of inability (poor eyesight drivers, sleeping judges…) which is why mandatory retirement used to exist, because it’s so hard to get people to quit even when it’s obvious to all around them they should. Now that people live so long, and sometimes so healthily, forced retirement ages are passe, but it’s not surprising the fundamental human nature issue remains, in the non-negligible percentage of people. With Domingo, it’s also an issue of the effect of fame -- among non regular opera goers, his is often the one name they will know, so his shows sell pretty well

  • Camille

    Well, of course the “Figlia” would come out all right as that is a small challenge to a tenor (an F).

    Miss Haroutunian sounded stressed or “fuori impostazione” on Friday night compared to the polished, well-placed Elisabetta which I heard last season. Perhaps the rehearsals had been stressful? It will be interesting to hear her later on, in the broadcast. Mr Calleja’s since last hearing him in house in 2009, has grown quite a lot and would seem to be equal to heftier tasks in the future. Hoping that trademark honeyed, golden tone of his does not dissipate, nor the quiver quicken anymore nor curdle. Not more than a rote actor--but still acceptable enough because of his voice. A Luisa Miller Rodolfo might be an excellent role for him? When is Vespri Siciliani ever making a comeback, come to think of it? Furlanetto’s “Il lacerato spirito” I found very unimpressive but since it is literally his first utterance in the opera, well, okayhowever, this was not a matinee….however, I loved his hammy entrance and “I morti ti salutanno!” In the last act and he does well at acting the oldtime villain if not making and connecting a legato well…for the rest I decline any further comment other than to say Mo. Levine seemed to conduct his Tannhäuser performances (even with the peculiar sway to the left, et al.) more ably than this work, which requires quite a degree of synchronization and swift adjustment. The ‘conference’ with the orchestra before the commencement of the third act I found to be bizarre.

    As I have stated on another thread, I will not be attending any further performances of Mo. Domingo’s, so I bid a sad ‘Ave atque vale’ to him after the incredible period of forty-five years. I do not care to see him do his “Urna fatal” act on stage any longer. There will be nary a Nabucco nor a Lord Macbeth for me next season. It is far too distracting to the enjoyment of the actual work at hand, the reason for which I attend performances — is for the work itself, not for any particular singer, conductor, nor staging.

    The King is dead. Long live the King.

    Perhaps of interest will be the Simon which the astute Mr Christopher refers to and which I will be examining as remedy to last Freitag’s Fest: to wit—

    It comes in two parts but you all can go find part deux for yourselves, if y’all likes it.

    May I also point out there exists an edition from Teatro la Fenice from 2014 which has some fetching imagery, from the bits I have viewed, as well as a protagonista felicitously named Simone Piazzola, as well, an actual baritono.

    • Camille

      Oh yes, Richard Bernstein is to be commended for doing a dirty job very cleanly. It’s a long way from his “Speedo” cheesecake days and am glad to hear him hanging in there.

      • DeepSouthSenior

        Camille is glad to see Richard Bernstein now “hanging in there.” Was he “hanging out there” in his “‘Speedo’ cheesecake days”? Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.

        • Camille

          Ask La Cieca to access a photo from Bernstein’s Opera Snooze “layout”, if she pleases!

          He was a real crowd pleaser, back in the day.

    • moi

      Freni…. incroyable

    • gustave of montreal

      Rich La Scala performance of Boccanegra. Merci for transmitting. The score is so unusual, so new, so different. It is my best opera favourite of Verdi together with Don Carlos. A master work.

  • moi

    But having listened to Haroutounian online last Friday , I think she should get more credit for her performance

    • phoenix

      Agree -- all of them started out in the Prologue & Act 1 a bit out of sorts -- prima perturbation? Haroutounian probably lacks the bravura of the overwhelmingly self-confident Tomowa-Sintow (whom I saw sing Amelia-Maria live at the Met) but I found Haroutounian’s Come in quest’ora bruna to be as delicate as the strings that introduced it.
      -- Nevertheless, as always, to each our own. Very good review, Mr. Corwin.

      • Camille

        Phoenix, I know you like Miss Haroutunian, as do I. However, her opening aria was more stuck in the throat and not really moving than flowing, to me. Once she got her voice flowing, that condition improved, but the entire night she did a lot of sharping, which I attribute to the stress of the opening night situation, the brouhaha attending this AARP convention of artists. As well, she did not illustrate being an “orfanella vergine” nearly so well as she did the unfortunate Elisabetta, wherein her self-possession and aplomb was much more in evidence and entirely appropriate to playing the role of the unhappy princess/queen. At any rate, one may always hear her and she is able to dominate the ensembles in Verdi, always a challenge for the soprano primadonna.

        As she has long been the bride’s maid and not the bride in several productions and this was rumored to originally be a Poplavskaya role, as was the role she substituted for her in London also was, it is a critical change in how she is viewed and I do hope she will survive as, although she is not Zinka nor Renata, nor even good old Aprile, she is what we have at the moment.

        • phoenix

          My dear, you can keep Zinka for yourself. The other two, in their day, were both mine!

          • Camille

            I don’t want Zinka in this at all!!! Just reciting the names of yore.

            Actually, I can see why the young Aprile would have done well, her debut role I think, in this. Well, that’s over, as is a lot else.

        • gustave of montreal

          Yakyakyakyak mother!

          • Camille

            I’m not YOUR MOTHER, yo’ motha!!!!!!!

            Go jump in Niagara Falls!

  • Camille

    Just now have read TonyTom’s review of this opera and in which he wastes no time fetting to the gist of the matter. I am pleasantly surprised--or should I be?

    I mean, between Domingo, Levine, and Furlanetto, it was like attending an AARP convention for musicians. Aren’t there decades younger artists out there who are more than qualified to do the jobs competently and on the upward rise of a career trajectory that could be employed? The marvelous Deva Devia aside, most singers retire at sometime or another because they just don’t sound good anymore. She sounds SO good one almost wishes for her as the protagonist in the current Roberto Devereux absolute premier. So it’s not that I am against senior singers, far from it, but they’ve just got to be held to an accountable standard of performance.

    I guess that’s impossible, huh?

  • skoc211

    I remember quite enjoying his Germont a few seasons ago. Vocally it was fine, but his characterization I found incredibly moving.

    • Camille

      Thus far, that is the only one I’ve heard that kind of worked but I only heard it and did not see in house, so.

      I heard PD sing Vidal in Luisa Fernanda in June 2007, in Los Angeles. That role is considered to be a baritone and he got by — in that genre of music — if you follow what I intend. Heavyweight, big, rolling baritone Verdi protagonist roles, like Simon, Nabucco, Macbeth and the elder Foscari are a tad different from singing “Padre” roles, as in Traviata, which I heard, and in the Giovanna d’Arco, which I did not hear. I would like to, out of curiosity, as I liked Netrebko’s turn in the recent scaligera Giovanna quite a bit.

  • Constantine A. Papas


    I’d like to reassure, from my previous life, that if a doctor shows up in the operating room with shaking hands, they will stop him and take a way his surgical privileges, though he can practice in his office. Domingo can sing in his home, and Levine can conduct listening to his own recordings. Too bad there is no malpractice and liability for a bad opera performance to satisfy egos and not to serve the art.

    • DeepSouthSenior

      There is malpractice and liability for bad opera performances. It’s called ticket sales. Unfortunately, as we all know the lag time between an artist’s decline and the public’s response is all too often painful beyond measure. Some cynic may remark that everyone loves a train wreck, yet lovers of great art take no pleasure in these sad scenes.

  • Yay Brian Mulligan! He’s a house favorite here in San Francisco, and it’s about time he got a Met outing. His baritone is gorgeous and his acting isn’t too shabby.