By Giuseppe Verdi
Directed by Elijah Moshinsky
Conducted by James Conlon
With Plácido Domingo
LA Opera, Music Center, Los Angeles
Through March 4, 2012
If you are not an opera aficionado, “Simon Boccanegra” is unlikely to be the first title that comes to mind when you think of the music of Giuseppe Verdi. Certainly the confusing underpinnings make the book of “Boccanegra” forgettable. But the music … ah, the music is an entirely different story. Heavily populated by deep male voices and adorned by some of Verdi’s most sumptuous choral music, the audience is borne away on the richly colored lyricism of Verdi’s splendid score.
This production originated at Covent Garden. Michael Yeargan’s strikingly simple set — massive columns, marble floor, subdued tones — gives few clues to the story. Only modest scenery shifts are made during the almost three hours: a large conference table and Latin writing on the back wall for the counsel session; graffiti in the same wall space for a shift to a scene of conflict. Director Elijah Moshinsky takes a similarly minimalist approach to the acting. Singers, in general, simply face the audience, downstage. They are there to entertain with their music, not dazzle with their acting or athletic prowess. At first, the unadorned production feels like a throwback to bygone staging. After a while the simplicity becomes an asset, enabling the listener simply to be enveloped by the music. Even reading the supertitles is an unnecessary distraction. Never mind the fact that the story itself is convoluted and you will likely be consulting with your companion when you exit for plot points, disagreeing.
Plácido Domingo makes his Los Angeles debut in a baritone role. It is such a perfect fit one has to remind oneself that for most of his career, Domingo has been a tenor. Ironically, early on he sang the tenor role of young Adorno in “Boccanegra.” At 71, his baritone is both lush and confident. He actually began his opera career as a baritone and was encouraged to take on the tenor parts that have formed the backbone of his work until now.
Soprano Ana María Martínez is a talent to be reckoned with. She sings the part of Amelia, the young unacknowledged daughter of Boccanegra who has been brought up as a Grimaldi for pragmatic reasons — the Grimaldi scions were overseas and they needed a descendant in Italy to pass their holdings on to (it is a very operatic quandary). Martinez won Domingo’s Operalia in 1995. Her full tones are a compliment to the dark power of the male voices in Boccanegra and a pure joy on their own.
Conductor James Conlon is the consummate friend to artists. When he is at the helm, their voices seem to be lifted up and projected fully out into the hall. Boccanegra is no exception; the LA Opera orchestra under Conlon is never in competition with the singers; nor has it ever sounded better, more supportive, or more full, than it does in this production.
“Simon Boccanegra” was not an instant hit when it opened in 1857. Audiences were put off by the “sing-through” style: rather than a form they were accustomed to, this opera gave them a series of arias, the lyrics carrying the story along without repeated refrains, etc. Verdi revised it again in 1881, but it has never caught fire like works such as “Rigoletto.” The first performance in the U.S. was at the Met in 1932. Judging by the LA Opera performance, this is an oversight, though a livelier staging might make it more appealing to audiences. Certainly the wonderful music and fine performances of the cast make this “Simon Boccanegra” worth a trip downtown.