Verdi was a master of operatic hatred – Iago for Otello, Di Luna for Manrico in Il Trovatore, Carlo for Alvaro in La forza del destino. One of his greatest is Jacopo Fiesco's hatred for Simon Boccanegra, and at Staatsoper Berlin last night, we had two of the world's great opera stars – in the twilight of their careers – to sing it. Ferruccio Furlanetto has been a top Verdian bass for decades, and his voice remains one to travel for: a true basso profondo, rich in harmonics, gravelly with the cares of old age. He persuaded the listener completely of the venom of Fiesco's implacable, apparently immutable rage and then of the man's nobility at the eventual – far too late – reconciliation.

Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra © Monika Rittershaus
Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra
© Monika Rittershaus
What impresses most – even now – about Plácido Domingo is his ability to weight and shape a phrase, and the fact that he applies this not just at crucial moments but to every phrase in the opera. For the whole of a long evening of singing, each sentence is tailored to fit both the contour of its melody and the poetry of the words. His voice remains fearless, without hint of hesitation in approaching big high notes or whispered pianissimi. Physically, he is fearless also, from the energy of the younger Simon in the Prologue to a headlong stage fall at the moment of Simon's death. But for all Domingo's artistry, it's impossible to hide the fact that his voice is not a baritone. The timbre is clear, bright, highly accented – and therefore does not achieve the balance with other voices that we expect of a Verdi baritone.

The other main voices, while not as exceptional, were very strong. Krassimira Stoyanova made an impression from Amelia's first entry, with rock steady technique and showing herself well able to stay on top of the high power levels that Daniel Barenboim was unleashing from the orchestra pit. Alfredo Daza made a good foil as the villanous Paolo: his soliloquy to the audience putting one in mind of Iago's “Credo” from Otello. As Adorno, Gaston Rivero matched everyone for power, matched Domingo for clarity of timbre and displayed somewhat more nuance than the others in a production in which nuance was generally lacking. This was in no small part due to the orchestra. Technically, we heard some superb playing: every note clearly articulated, entries pin sharp, ensemble playing excellent. But Barenboim was driving the orchestra relentlessly hard: until late in Act II, there was very little ebb and flow to the music. This resulted in adrenalin-filled thrills for the personal and political hatreds, but little relaxation in the tender passages. The hall didn't help: the Staatsoper's temporary home at the Schiller Theater is small and its acoustic is harsh: they will be eagerly looking forward to their return to the Theater unter den Linden when the refurbishments there are complete.

Council Chamber Scene © Monika Rittershaus
Council Chamber Scene
© Monika Rittershaus
The German language has different words for different aspects of opera direction: Inszenierung (staging), Dramaturgie (dramatic concepts and shape) and Personenregie (direction of the actors). Federico Tiezzi's period staging, dating from 2009, is both unexceptional and unexceptionable: sets are mainly plain, with just a few styling cues to evoke medieval Venice, but not unattractive. Costumes are of the period without attempting to be overly opulent. An exception is the Council Chamber scene, where a background of castle and ships is matched by the bright red hats and cloaks familiar to us from paintings of Venetian nobility of the time; another is the end in which Amelia and the chorus change (inexplicably) into Victorian clothing.

Personenregie, however, seemed almost absent. There was hardly any physical contact between pairs of singers, whether rivals, lovers or father-daughter; there wasn't even all that much eye contact or movement around the stage. Choreography of the crowd scenes was neither believably realistic nor interestingly artistic: you could neither feel any true love between Amelia and Gabriele nor the explosion of paternal joy between Boccanegra and Amelia. As many operas do, Simon Boccanegra relies for its interest on the relationships between individuals: however starry the singing, it's difficult for the opera to move one if those relationships are represented by voice alone and not by acting. In the programme notes, Tiezzi is eloquent about his role: “We actors, singers and directors are in the theatre to relate and to remind. With our souls, our voices, our bodies.” Those are brave and challenging words: this performance did not meet that challenge.

It's possible for many stars to shine brightly without making a constellation. So it was at the Schiller Theater.

***11