With the business situation in the recording industry being what it is, studio recordings of operas are more or less ruled out. The positive side of this is that the general public gets the chance to be part of concerts that are recorded and enjoy the tension such an event creates more often. Unfortunately, in the case of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Konzerthaus (I caught the second of two performances), many used the occasion not only to preserve their frenetic applause for digital eternity, but to cough as well, as the Konzerthaus’s polite request to stifle such noise seemed to rather provoke the contrary. But this – and some shrill notes from a flute in the fortissimo parts of the Prologue and Act II – was by and large all there was to criticize in an otherwise impeccably executed performance.

Thomas Hampson © Dario Acosta
Thomas Hampson
© Dario Acosta

Predictably, the choice was the work’s more popular revised version from 1881 (where Arrigo Boito changed Francesco Maria Piave’s text and the composer fine-tuned the orchestration and cut instrumental parts), although the Verdi year would have been a good time to give the first, rarely recorded one a try. At any rate, Simon Boccanegra is a masterpiece, although it hasn’t always been regarded as one and will probably never reach the popularity of, say, Rigoletto or La traviata. This may be due to its less accessible tunes and the lack of showcase arias, but also to the sombre and complex plot that involves politics, kidnapping, love, schemes, treason, reconciliation and a slow poison. From the first note on, the first Doge of Genoa is doomed and you are either drawn into it in a way that a sophisticated crime movie thrills you, or you are not. In this opera Verdi does not please for the sake of pleasing.

On the podium Massimo Zanetti gave all he had to squeeze out the best there is in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra: accuracy, beauty of sound and phrases to fit the big picture the composer painted – larger than life and in dark colours with metal tones, as the score gives the brass section the chance to shine. The orchestra took it, providing the purest sound I’ve heard from trumpets in a while and also producing flawless solos for the fanfares. The chorus in this opera consists of about hundred people on stage and more behind, and the Wiener Singakademie, thoroughly prepared by their director Heinz Ferlesch, impressed not only for its sheer volume of sound. Particularly memorable was the council scene that ended in a spine-chilling, hissed curse.

With both the chorus and orchestra forming the excellent basis of this performance, the vocal soloists seemed no less inspired. As can be expected for a recording, all were duly warmed up and remembered that the emotions have to be in the voice and not in the acting, although seeing Thomas Hampson in the title role “die” by collapsing on his music stand was indeed impressive. Boccanegra is a great role for a mature baritone or even one past his prime, and Hampson’s interpretation is nothing short of ideal, even though he was more convincing in the private, emotional music with Amelia than in the stately “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!” from the council scene. Carlo Colombara’s enormous bass (his enemy Jacopo Fiesco) displayed equal vocal authority and Luca Pisaroni as the schemer Paolo Albiani completed a fantastic trio of low male voices.

Amelia was rising star Krístĭne Opolaís who impressed with precision, vocal vigour and a beautiful trill, but doesn’t possess a voice sensual and refined enough to make her an ideal Amelia for me. Vocally, she and Joseph Calleja as her beloved Gabriele Adorno were more a case of “opposites attract” than soulmates. The latter was on superb form with beautiful tone and made the most of this part, which doesn’t usually stand out. Deservedly, he got much applause for his cabaletta “Cielo pietoso, rendila”. The final applause was enthusiastic but set in slowly, after a long pause that must have seemed even longer to the singers on stage; still, a fitting response to the shattering death scene and the crowd’s haunting last call for the dead Doge.

*****