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Simon Boccanegra will never be one of Verdi's most popular operas, lacking, as it does, a plot driven by the typical soprano-tenor romances of La Traviata and Il Trovatore or the memorable arias of Rigoletto -- the three big operas of the 1850s that preceded Boccanegra's premiere in 1857. Not merely revised but practically recomposed in 1881, incorporating the now-famous Council Scene, Boccanegra has greater appeal perhaps to discerning aficionados who can appreciate the darker hues of its leading baritone and bass roles and the palette of Verdi's later, more advanced orchestration.
Despite not being one of Verdi's frequently performed operas, Boccanegra has nevertheless been well served in recordings, dating back to RCA's 1973 LP set conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni and Claudio Abbado's 1977 Deutsche Grammophon issue, which brought Boccanegra to a wider audience than ever before. The video era followed with magnificent stagings, notably the Met's 1995 production conducted by James Levine Verdi - Simon Boccanegra / Levine, Te Kanawa, Metropolitan Opera with Vladimir Chernov, Robert Lloyd, Kiri Te Kanawa, and tenor Placido Domingo, which remained the reference DVD into the 21st century.
This 2007 version of Boccanegra from Bologna, starring Italian baritone Roberto Frontali, was the first to appear on Blu-ray and seems to have gone unnoticed, maybe because the other members of the cast are not household names. Unfortunate, as this is an excellent Boccanegra.
Frontali, 50 when this was filmed, is a widely experienced Verdi baritone. Like the corsair he portrays, he looks robust, sings with vigor as well as nuance, and acts effectively. A reviewer of the DVD issue complains that in his Act I duet with Amelia, Frontali fails to scale down the dynamics on the high A of his closing "O figlia" to piano as Verdi has written at the end of this touching father-daughter recognition. Perhaps the sound on the DVD is not as good as the Blu-ray's because I hear Frontali's diminuendo just fine.
In the Council Scene, Frontali is duly majestic and convincing in the Act III reconciliation with his archenemy Fiesco. One of Frontali's shining moments comes near the end, as Boccanegra is dying and says, "I want to breathe the blissful air of the open sky." The backdrop rises to reveal a gentle, light blue seaside, and Frontali sings, "Oh, relief! The breeze of the sea! The sea, the sea," establishing a sense not of gloom and doom but of welcome peace. In the ensuing death scene, Frontali doesn't stoop to melodrama, and as he expires, a radiant smile lights up his face, creating a cathartic release. It's a striking portrayal.
As Fiesco, Italian bass Giacomo Prestia delivers a solid performance throughout. As in his depiction of Philip in the Tutto Verdi Don Carlo Don Carlo [Blu-ray] from Modena, Prestia approaches the heights of Ferruccio Furlanetto in this role Verdi: Simon Boccanegra, which is no small compliment. A real and pleasant surprise is thirtysomething Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, who is the best Paolo I've seen or heard. His dynamic acting and singing give Bologna's show extra value.
In the lesser roles of the two lovers, Carmen Giannattasio is a voluptuous Amelia who sings gorgeously. Tenor Giuseppe Gipali, the lesser of the five principals, is adequate. Michele Mariotti, only 28 in 2007, is an alert conductor who renders Verdi's masterful orchestration wonderfully. The stage set, designed by director Giorgio Gallione, is abstract and minimal, but functional rather than distracting. In fact, Gallione's set serves so well that Parma picked it up in 2010 for its Boccanegra in the Tutto Verdi package.
Comparisons with that later version are instructive in revealing the strengths of the Bologna performance. Both use period-appropriate costumes, but under a different stage director, the Parma production Simon Boccanegra [Blu-ray] looks more like a rehearsal. The lighting is weak, the orchestra isn't conducted so well, the chorus in the mob scene mills aimlessly. Leo Nucci seems taxed in the lead role. (Unlike Frontali, he doesn't drop the dynamics on "O, figlia" to piano at the close.) When the Parma backdrop is raised to reveal the sea, it's black -- not the light blue as it is in Bologna. Nucci staggers around rather pathetically as he's failing and dies with his mouth gaping in despair, rather than with Frontali's radiant smile. Frontali succeeds in making Boccanegra's death uplifting; Nucci's is a downer.
Arthaus Musik's Blu-ray image is razor sharp, the sound full and flawless. It's the best of the Simon Boccanegras on Blu-ray and merits a strong recommendation.