There are times in opera when the best advice is just to stand there and sing. Or if the libretto calls for kneeling, then just to kneel there and sing. Likewise, if the action calls for lying down while dying, then just to lie there and sing. All these positions are called for in Giuseppe Verdi's 1857 (revised in 1881) Simon Boccanegra, and the cast -- whether standing, kneeling or lying dying -- during the first night of this season's Metropolitan Opera revival of the 1995 Giancarlo del Monaco production followed that straight-forward advice with prodigious rewards.
And what an ensemble, including hard-working chorus! When the round-up of the 2010-2011 season is compiled, it could well be that the Simon Boccanegra season premiere remains among the highest highlights, if not the single highest. Where to start? With, it only seems appropriate, Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, which he's taken on at the Met for the first time. Handsome with white hair flowing, he meets all demands for a noble but conflicted, assailed, eventually failing Simon. The Russian baritone occasionally allowed a few notes to become foggy but for the most part was a commanding presence.
Barbara Frittoli's Maria -- also known as Amelia (don't ask yet, if you don't already know) -- may resort to gestures known only to sopranos on stage, but her singing was right up Verdi's street. Not surprising anyone in the audience but wowing them all, Ferruccio Furlanetto gave full voice and full acting chops to Fiesco, whose gripe with Simon starts early and lasts until just before final curtain.
Then there was Roberto De Biasio as Maria/Amelia's intended--and in for the ill Ramon Vargas (who'll appear for the remaining four performances). De Biasio generously offered consistently sweet tones supported by admirable vocal heft. It's his house debut, and he couldn't have provided a better one -- not if the ticket buyers were any barometer. Also debuting, as scheming Paolo, the Italian baritone Nicola Alaimo was robust in size and sound. Whenever the above five sang in any combinations of duets, trios or quartets -- and all abound here -- the results were greatly moving, not the least of which was the third-act finale of the prologue-and-three-acts opus.
Although Simon Boccanegra wasn't acclaimed when it bowed, it's now part of a canon about which there are almost no weak entries. Starting with the overture, the music is exquisite -- sometimes tender, sometimes tough -- and conductor James Levine made certain that every nuance was attended to.
Set and costume designer Michael Scott's presentation of 14th-century Genoa (looking a bit 17th-century as well) also throws the singers into strong relief. There's a council chamber with a wall and ceiling mural so beautifully rendered, it may be that someone at the other Met--the art repository -- could get the itch to acquire it. And, oh, how del Monaco cleverly echoes that mural with his coda tableau.
As for the tale told -- the scenario adapted by Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito from Antonio Garcia Gutierrez's 19th-century melodrama-complete-with-poisoned-potion -- it's as confusing and complicated as Italian history ever is with its constant clash of city-states. The political factions, often casting patricians against plebeians and Guelphs against Grimaldis, befuddles all but the most analytic minds.
In the prologue, Simon has taken on the position of Doge but has his enemies, among them Fiesco for reasons having to do with a daughter considered too noble for Simon to marry. It's a problem when the couple already has their infant daughter Maria on hand and Fiesco's off-spring has just breathed her last. When the acts commence, the daughter, Amelia, whom Simon is now raising, has tumbled for Simon's young enemy Gabriele Adorno. Are the baby Maria and the adult Amelia one and the same, and will much come right when that's cleared up? What do you think? But also, please don't hold this reviewer responsible for any mistakes in the summary. The script is too much of a Rubik's Cube, don't you know?
Not to mention the poisoned cup that sits through much of act three, scene one with nobody but Simon -- for whom it's intended -- developing a pressing thirst. It's lucky that Hamlet's mom, Gertrude, who does like her libations, doesn't wander into the action.