The week of April 11th was a great week for the Liceu, with two highly enjoyable shows—Simon Boccanegra and Serse—that debuted within four days of each other. The first was a revival of the 2008-09 production of Verdi’s mature masterpiece Simon Boccanegra, a co-production with the Grand Théâtre de Genève, with scenery by Carl Fillion and direction by José Luis Gómez. The story takes place in the 14th century, amid the ongoing class warfare between the Guelfs (plebians) and Ghibellines (aristocracy). In an historic win, Boccanegra—a corsair who has quelled the hostile piracy off the coast of Italy—is named the first-ever Doge of Genoa, a system that was continued until the Napoleonic Wars.
Boccanegra has already earned the fierce enmity of a leading Ghibelline, Jacopo Fiesco, whose daughter he has wooed and begot with child but was unable to marry because of the implacable Fiesco. When his beloved dies in childbirth, his only hope is to be able to raise his daughter, but she disappears mysteriously. The rest of the story, with its unknown and mistaken identities, is the usual rich hotpot of operatic drama that takes three acts to straighten out... More or less!
I have often railed against anachronistic staging, and Carl Fillion’s setting is definitely not a 14th-century setting. However, it is done with delicacy and restraint; the background dark or mirrored, the basic colours black and dark blue, and it supports the theme of the work rather than attempting to alter it to the whim and ego of the designer, as has recently all too often been the case.
While Barcelona has been eagerly anticipating the return of Plácido Domingo as the Doge of Genoa for the run’s final three performances, the role was impressively sung nonetheless by Leo Nucci on opening night, and his rich voice is in no way impaired by his age. Since, at 74, he is only one year younger than Domingo, it is surprising that the same fuss is not made about his long-lasting career, but so it goes. I am hoping to be able to compare the two if a space becomes available towards the end of the run!
The surprise of the evening was tenor Josep Bros, who stepped in at the last minute for a sick Fabio Sartori, who was to have sung the role of Amelia’s young suitor Gabriele Adorno. After some initially tentative moments, Bros quickly took to the role with his usual full bel canto enthusiasm.
Both bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Fiesco (the embittered enemy of the Doge), and rich baritone Angel Odena, playing the treacherous favorite Paolo Albani, gave excellent performances.
Sadly, the disappointment of the evening was soprano Barbara Frittoli in the role of the heroine, Amelia Grimaldi. In her last appearance at the Liceu, back in 2011, she was a perfect delight, paired with Roberto Alagna as the heroine in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (so brilliant that I saw it three times). But, whether because of a cold or some other reason, her Amelia was a disappointment. She started badly, occasionally out of tune and with shrill high notes. While she warmed up and gradually improved as the performance advanced, it was not what I had expected. I hope it was a one-time letdown.
Conductor Massimo Zanetti led the Liceu Orchestra in a well-matched accompaniment to the singers, and the chorus—who work hard in this opera—were excellent, under the continued direction of Conxita Garcia.
While Bros moved easily into an unexpected and, for him, an untried role, bringing him enthusiastic acclaim from the audience, the crown (literally and figuratively) went to the Doge, Simon. Nucci WAS Boccanegra, both vocally and in the dignity of his acting.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening. The first night audience were certainly satisfied with what they heard and applauded generously and enthusiastically at the final curtain.
The performances run until April 29th with changing casts. Nucci will be succeeded by Giovanni Meoni, who holds an impressive background and career as an interpreter of bel canto, despite being the “baby” of the three Boccanegras as a singer in his early 50s. Then, on April 23rd, 26th and 29th comes Plácido Domingo in what could be his last appearance at the Liceu. For these final three performances, the role of Amelia will be sung by Davinia Rodriguez, who makes her debut at the Liceu. The juxtaposition is a gentle irony worth noting.
It has taken longer to write this short addendum to the main review of Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra at the Liceu because I have found it hard to make the comparison I thought would flow naturally between the Leo Nucci performance at the beginning of the run and that of Plácido Domingo at the end. The whole issue is, however, much more complex than a straight-on thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Leo Nucci was a new experience for me, so I have no historical comparison, as opposed to my years of Plácido-worship. I was deeply impressed with Nucci’s strong, melodious voice and persuasive acting and acutely aware that, at 74, I had probably missed his prime years but was still getting a strong, attractive voice.
Plácido, on the other hand, has been on my list of 'must-hear' performers for more years than I care to admit to, and so the comparison is skewed and not entirely fair.
He is still remarkable, with a voice that still stands above the average and a performance that is well-drawn and convincing. I would still engage him if I were the manager of an opera company—assuming I could get him.
But I am worried. He is being so feted for his name and past brilliance that I am afraid nobody, including himself, will realise that the fading is gradual but inevitable. When will the break-off point happen? The Met has already announced his appearance next season, in the lead role of Verdi’s Nabucco. Fingers crossed, he will, as he was this year at the Liceu, still be on form, if no longer magnificent. But the public is sentimental, management is ruthless in the search for and exploitation of the big names that will bring in the bucks, and there have been sad examples of singers continuing too long in recent operatic history.
Please don’t misunderstand: I stand in awe of Plácido’s courage, strength of will and amazingly well-managed voice, and I deeply envy him the capacity to carry on his fine performances at an age when most of us have, willingly or unwillingly, left our careers behind us. But I just pray that he will recognise when his name is being exploited and will have the clear sight to end a brilliant career on, to coin a phrase, a high note.