Festival Verdi 2022 Review: Simon Boccanegra

Piero Pretti, Vladimir Stoyanov & Roberta Mantegna Give Magnetic Performances of Original Verdi Score

By Francisco Salazar

On Oct. 14, the Festival Verdi concluded its performances of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.”

The occasion was special as the festival brought back the original 1857 version which is rarely heard (there are very few recordings available as well). So for most opera lovers, much of the music was new and different.

A Refreshing Look 

When Verdi premiered the work at the Teatro La Fenice, it was a flop. Years later the composer brought on Arrigo Boito to revise the libretto (in what proved to be a trial-run for “Otello”) and Verdi rewrote much of the score, resulting in a more mature and compact work that is among his best. And it’s very evident why Verdi wanted to rewrite the score – the original version doesn’t really work.

First off, melodically and stylistically, it is all over the place. There are moments that Verdi attempts to recall his early works like giving Amelia a double aria in Act one and the Act one concertato which is filled with vibrant music and uses the stretta to end the act. The orchestrations also rely more on the “um pa pa” accompaniment rhythm, as in the duet with Simone and Amelia. Then there are melodies that are laid out for the final version which are not quite as expansive or developed. Some of the music is choppy, including the introduction of Amelia’s aria, which in the final version is an awakening and contains some of Verdi’s most ethereal music.

But then we get to the second and third acts and while some of the melodies are not completely as developed as in the final version, the orchestration is richer and more dramatic. The tenor aria is intact and the trio and the final quartet are essentially orchestrated like the final version. But the melodies and the vocal writing aren’t quite as organic as Verdi would make them in 1881. The crescendoing line of Amelia in the final quartet doesn’t have the same growth as the final version and the vocal line is a bit forced when it comes to reaching the climactic high notes that float above the ensemble.

With all that said, Riccardo Frizza, who conducted the evening, gave a great reading with fluid tempi and impeccable transition. I may have complaints about this original version, but I am glad the Verdi Festival is experimenting and bringing different versions of the works so we can appreciate Verdi’s revised work.

On the Waterfront in Genova

Valentina Carrasco set the production in Genoa at a port in a slaughterhouse. According to the director, a port is a tough place where many social issues occur and in the case of “Simon Boccanegra,” an opera about politics, betrayals, and power, it seemed that Carasco had something in her playbook especially when one thinks of films like “On the Waterfront” and the corruption and mafia. “Boccanegra” plays into these concepts but when it all came together it seemed more of a stretch and outrageous, especially for some theatergoers. The second part of the opera opens at a slaughterhouse with a bunch of half-cured pigs. The reaction from the audience on the closing night was one of outrage with many screaming, others applauding, and others jeering.

The opening scene seemed to be a factory where Boccangera eventually gets elected as a union head while the second act was set in a shipping container that acted as Amelia’s home that had a bunch of flowers. There was also a party scene at the end of the first act with a sign “Viva Simone” with flags and dance. The third and fourth act was also in a slaughterhouse and the final scene was on a wheat farm that even included a live goat. One could argue that the slaughterhouse represented chaos and brutality and the wheat farm is a representation of peace at the end; if you go deep enough it may work on some levels. But aesthetically on first impression, seeing the slaughtered pigs for almost an hour eventually tires you and becomes an assault on the senses. And maybe that is what Carrasco’s intentions were but on initial viewing, it was a bit much.

“Boccanegra” in itself is a very complicated work that involves a love triangle, a father-daughter story, politics, and a number of betrayals. With this update, I must admit, I became utterly confused, in my attempt to reconcile the action on the stage with the libretto.

An Ingenue 

Vocally the cast that the Festival put together is world-class and exceptional in many ways.

In the role of Amelia, Roberta Mantegna brought a youthful and pure quality. The soprano, who is only 34 years of age, has become a rising star in Italy, performing some of Verdi and Donizetti’s most demanding roles. Vocally she has a delicate Italianate voice that easily fills the house with a roundness that can easily work its way to the lower parts and higher parts of the voice. In many ways, it’s a pure voice that is still a bit green and can sometimes come off as too technical with great notes and phrases and lacking in expression. But with maturity, this will likely come naturally for the soprano.

And in some ways that naivety in the vocal quality worked well for the role Amelia. In her opening “Come in quest’ora bruna,” Mantegna began with a delicate sound that eventually grew to a mezzoforte. The tone never took on heaviness and instead the soprano maintained that fine phrasing, holding back her rapid vibrato. The extension into the higher register was also flexible, if sometimes strident and wobbly in the higher reaches.

Mantegna’s voice opened up in the ensuing cabaletta, “Ah! Il palpito deh frena,” where she showed off impeccable coloratura roulades that went from the upper register to the lower depths. The trills were also sung with clarity, while cadenzas demonstrated her virtuosic power.

The ensuing duet saw Mantegna’s tone darken in the opening recitative, only to return to the light tone of her opening aria. The opening lines were sung with a leggero timbre that turned into a melting and smooth sound. It was a great contrast to Piero Pretti’s passionate tenor. That combination of ardor and purity was an interesting combination as it introduced the way these two characters would later interact in the more dramatic moments of the evening.

Mantegna’s caressing tone continued in the duet with Vladimir Stoyanov, who took on the title role. We saw a more elated Amelia with more passion and gentleness. In “Figlia! a tal palpito” Stoyanov opened the lines with a tender baritone that was accompanied by Amelia’s higher register that emphasized the child-like qualities of a girl discovering her father. Her higher register was given a delicacy that allowed both voices to meld well.

In the second and third acts of the opera, Mantegna’s ingenue characterization grew as she commanded a little more of the scene in her duet, trio, and final quartet. Her characterization, while remaining innocent, asserted itself more especially in the confrontation between Simon and Gabriele Adorno. Here we got to see Mantegna acquire a darker and rounder sound while still maintaining the lyric qualities of her voice. During the Act two trio the soprano provided anguish and mixed emotion that showed she was divided by her father and her love for Gabriele. And then in the final quartet, her crescendoing lines provided an angelic quality through the purity of her timbre.

Mantegna is definitely a voice to look out for and one that I expect we will be seeing a lot of in the coming years.

Passion and Fire

In “Simon Boccanegra,” Gabriele Adorno’s arc doesn’t truly get completed until the second act when he finally gets an entire act dedicated to his conflict of killing the title role. Only in Act one do we get to see his love for Amelia and a glimpse of his plot with Paolo. Pretti really made a huge impact during the second act where he showed off his wide-ranging color palette.

He began “Oh! inferno Amelia Qui!” with a dramatic sound that expressed a tormented man that was going into madness over the thought of murdering Boccanegra. His tone continued to rise as he butchered a piece of meat and the legato line evolved to into more declaimed lines that emphasized that rage. That soon calmed as he sang “Ah! Io Piango” where Pretti sang with a yearning tone. In the third part of the aria “Cielo Pietoso, rendila” Pretti used the lyrical side of his voice to connect his phrases with a gorgeous mezzopiano. This was bel canto singing at its best. He ended the aria with a forte that eventually descresendoed and gorgeously disappearing into the space. 

His ensuing duet with Mantegna saw Pretti’s torment grow and his voice continued to gain a spinto sound that was weighty and decisive. Some of the staccato lines, however, were airy and pointed and he sang them in hushed tones. During the trio, when Adorno learns Amelia is Boccanegra’s daughter, Pretti sang “Suo Padre sei tu!” with desperation and repeated the word “tu” decrescendoing to a piano that revealed his distress at the idea of the murder he was about to commit. The “Perdon Amelia” that begins the trio saw Pretti return to the lyricism and passionate tones from the opening. “Dammi la mano” on the hand other hand was sung with resignation. It was a splendid contrast between the polish of Vladimir Stoyanov’s Simon and the innocent and pure tone of Mantegna as noted.

At the end of the opera, as Adorno is named Doge, one could see the remorse in Pretti’s face as he sang the final lines “Padre, Padre” alongside Mantegna. It was a virtuosic performance that was complete in every way and one that showcased what a Verdi tenor should like.

The Noble Doge

Vladimir Stoyanov portrayed the title role with nobility and poise. The opening act saw his torment as he was in search of Maria and as he interacted with Fiesco. Boccanegra doesn’t have a proper aria but instead interacts with each of the characters around him and his moments alongside Amelia demonstrated a caring father figure as well as a person who has gone through so much suffering.

As noted, he carried an elegant baritone sound that was both tender and caressing as he swept through the gorgeous Verdi lines in the duet. In the ensuing Act one popolo scene the baritone’s “Plebe! Patrizi!” is not in the original version so a potent moment of betrayal and confrontation between Paolo, the chorus and Simon is gone. This scene is Simon’s but in this version, he is merely relegated to being part of an ensemble. There however were some moments in the ensemble where Stoyanov got to show his command and force and there are some declaratory moments that were definitely not as effective as the ones in the final version.

It is really in the second half that we get to see Simon’s kind soul but also his agony. In the moment between Amelia and Simon we see his warmth and torment. Stoyanov displayed this as he initially sang his lines with forte power that was almost grainy before  returning to greater refinement as he tried to appease Amelia.

That contradiction was best displayed in the monologue “Doge! Ancor proveran a tu aclemenza” which began with parlato phrases as well as sustained forte notes. But as the section went on, Stoyanov started singing with more hushed tones that were sometimes breathy, particularly in his delivery of “O Ciel.” As he drank the poison and lied down, the voice took on a weaker timbre. During the opening of the trio, there was a grittiness that included accented notes that actually worked well with Pretti’s passionate singing. That eventually turned to poise and compassion as he sang “Si pace splenda a liguri.”

In his duet in Act four with Riccardo Zanellato, Stoyanov’s Simon was fully tormented by his actions of the past. He displayed a soft tone that was well suited to Zanellato’s Fiesco who sang with a basso profondo. The duet was heartbreaking as Stoyanov’s Simon continued to weaken from the poison lying down on the floor as Zanellato held him up in a loving way.  At the finale of the opera, Stoyanov’s “Gran dio, li benedici piestoso” was a lament. He sang to Mantegna’s Amelia with a breathy tone as well as with gorgeous legato mezzoforte. His face expressed suffering but at the same time peace. Hi final “Maria!”  sounded almost as if he was crying for the short time he got to spend with his daughter. 

Like Stoyanov’s noble Boccanegra, Riccardo Zanellato’s Fiesco was far from a villain. He never came off as a character seeking vengeance. Instead, he came as one full of suffering. His “Il Lascerato Spirito” was a lament that showcased a booming bass and some extreme low notes that resonated with power at the end of the aria. One could hear his longing as he sang the lines “Resa al fulgor degli angeli.”

In the role of Paolo, Devid Cecconi brought a muscular baritone that was always lurking in the background, scheming for his vengeance. In every interaction with Fiesco and Gabriele, he was in the background and presented himself as a demonic character.

In the pit, Riccardo Frizza led a swift interpretation of the score that emphasized the dramatic moments,  such as the opening of Gabriele Adorno’s aria as well as the more tender moments like the ending which one could hear an angelic and peaceful conclusion. The chorus was also in top form and they were quite fantastic during the chilling Act one concertato. The ebsemble was also thrilling in the prologue when declaring Boccanegra the Doge.

In the end, this may not be the version of “Simon Boccanegra” you want to hear but it is an important historical document that was thankfully streamed and can be heard and seen for years to come.


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