Giuseppe Verdi found inspiration time after time in the history and literature of Spain. Some of his best works, such as that perennial favorite, Il Trovatore, not only take place in Spain, but were adapted from the work of Spanish playwright Antonio García Gutiérrez. This is also the case with that most Italian of all Verdi operas Simon Boccanegra, which was adapted from the 1843 capa y espada García Gutiérrez play Simón Bocanegra. Verdi completed the first version of this opera in 1857. It was revised many years later, and many improvements were made especially in the orchestration. It is this revised version that The Metropolitan Opera is currently presenting.
It is quite surprising that Verdi, the most nationalistic of all Italian opera composers, would find inspiration in a work from a Spanish author, given that the events of the drama take place about a 100 miles from his native Parma, and that the spirit of the great Italian humanist poet Petrarch resonates through the work. This could very well be the reason why the work's libretto (by two of Verdi's greatest collaborators, Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito) does not always seem to hang together, and oftentimes feels removed from the action it is trying to portray and the historical epoch which is trying to revive. Verdi's music is also not the most inspired. The score, many times, fails to ignite the spark of some of his best-known works, although it serves as a workshop for some musical ideas that he would later develop in some of his late works, primarily Otello, whose musical landscape is already apparent in Simon Boccanegra.
The MET has assembled a stellar cast for this production, headed by Thomas Hampson singing his first Doge of Genoa at the house. Hampson has always been an artist who carefully selects his roles, and he is at the point in his career when opera houses will mount works as vehicles for him. In turn, he always offers a studied, lyrical interpretation of the role, although his expressive singing is not always a favorite by everyone in the house, especially those that can remember the thunder and lightning approach of singers from previous generations. Angela Gheorghiu sounded somewhat small as Amelia, by comparison with the ample-voiced Jacopo Fiesco of basso Ferrucio Furlanetto. I am also very happy to report that Marcello Giordani sounded magnificent in the role of Gabrielle Adorno (isn't that the prettiest character name for a tenor?) his ringing top assuring us that he is the real deal.
The production by Giancarlo del Monaco holds up quite nicely. The elaborate council chamber of the Doge's palace set never fails to impress, although Monday night's audience was applause-happy throughout the evening, supporting the singers and the settings during times when silence would have been more in order. Conductor Fabio Luisi kept things running smoothly, and he relished the fleeting moments of tone-painting that make this one of the most unique Verdi scores.