This is what Verdi should sound like. Idiomatically sung by confident singers, with role-tailored voices that make one sit up and listen. The NTR ZaterdagMatinee concert series at the Concertgebouw, a long-standing institution financed with public broadcasting funds, traditionally opens with an opera. This year it was Simon Boccanegra, Verdi’s sombre study of personal tragedy lurking behind public success. In the tile role of the corsair who becomes the first Doge of Genua, very loosely based on a historical figure from the 14th century, the imposing baritone Dimitri Platanias headed a cast that had the audience roaring at the curtain call. Leading the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor James Gaffigan achieved moments of evocative beauty and terrible drama, in an increasingly exciting, if not exactly unblemished, performance.

Conductor James Gaffigan © Daniela Kienzler
Conductor James Gaffigan
© Daniela Kienzler

Simon Boccanegra’s plot centres around the rivalry between the patrician Jacopo Fiesco and Boccanegra, who fathers an illegitimate child with Fiesco’s daughter Maria. Their clashes run parallel to the strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines. As Doge, Boccanegra must quell this dissension as well as protect Genua from pirates and vying city-states. Both Dimitri Platanias and Rafał Siwek had the vocal authority for the baritone-bass confrontations, personal and political. Siwek’s sleek, unforced bass is a marvellous instrument. A little more bite in the consonants could have sharpened Fiesco’s contours and given more vehemence to the grieving father’s railing in “Il lacerato spirito”. What a hard-bitten figure Fiesco is! Just after his daughter dies he finds deep satisfaction in breaking the tragic news to the man who loves her. Siwek did not impart this level of fierceness. His singing style rhymed much better with the repentant aristocrat of the last act. Having plotted against the Doge, Fiesco is horrified when he hears that the disgruntled courtier Paolo Albiani has poisoned Boccanegra. He also discovers that his adopted daughter, Amelia Grimaldi, is, in fact, his granddaughter, Boccanegra’s child, lost when she was three.

Platanias’s performance was a range of vocal peaks. Rock-solid and thrillingly robust, his voice has a touch of gruffness that makes the rugged past of the pirate-turned-politician all the more credible. One could crave a little plangency, but his is not that kind of voice. It is a powerful, skillfully steered vehicle. Bringing the warring councillors to order comes naturally to the commanding Verdi specialist. But he could also pare down his ample baritone when necessary. In his touching death scene he struck a vein of tenderness when Boccanegra recalls his two great loves, Maria and the sea.

Amidst all the scheming and changing loyalties in Boccanegra there is also a couple in love, Amelia and the nobleman Gabriele Adorno. Tenor Giorgio Berrugi sang with heart-on-sleeve ardency, his tone bright and full-bodied. With genuinely Italianate phrasing and ringing high notes, Berrugi compensated for less than optimal elasticity with glowing expressivity. Adorno should seethe magnificently in his jealousy aria, “Sento avvampar nell’anima”, and that is what Berrugi did. He also soared gracefully above the orchestra in the ensembles, as did his Amelia. Lianna Haroutounian’s soprano is simply one of the most beautiful on the stage today. Her initial cavatina rippled with liquid softness, as it should, coming after the prelude depicting the sea bathed in early morning light, which Gaffigan rendered very finely. Haroutounian’s refulgent top notes were glorious, and she produced lovely floated piani. She dissolved a perfect trill on “pace” (peace), a recurring concept in this opera, in a pretty cascade of notes, which unfortunately landed with a break in the line, but that was her only misstep. Making the most of her text during the recognition scene with Platanias, Haroutounian was an affecting and plucky Amelia.

Careful vocal casting is a hallmark of the ZaterdagMatinee series. Soprano Varvara Tishina and tenor Leon van Liere ably filled the small roles of Amelia’s maid and the Captain. Two young baritones sang the two courtiers. Pietro, a leader of the plebeians, is one of those characters that fall victim to imperfect libretti with loose ends. Verdi’s writers, Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito, just forget all about him when prime intrigant Paolo no longer needs him. Tomeu Bibiloni sang him with appropriate efficiency. Ernesto Petti’s Paolo grew in vocal conviction and dramatic stature with each act – a highly promising performance.

Choruses on- and offstage add a public dimension to this work. The Netherlands Radio Choir sang with theatrical fire, but not all entrances were clean. The women distinguished themselves in the bridal chorus. Gaffigan avoided idiosyncratic effects and shaped the music by applying restraint and overstatement with intelligence. There were intonation issues in places, and an untidy start to Act II. Also, some of the lilting rhythms that evoke the Ligurian coast needed more lilt. At its best, however, as in the Council Chamber scene finale, the orchestra matched the soloists note for goosebump-raising note.