Met's 'Simon Boccanegra' lacks the needed single-minded vision
New York — The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's ''Simon Boccanegra'' is something of a misfire. Verdi finished the opera in 1857 and revised it drastically in 1880 with the help of composer/librettist Arrigo Boito (who was Verdi's collaborator on his last two operas, ''Otello'' and ''Falstaff''). The resulting clash in styles makes for a somewhat uneven work, but one full of beauty, and marked by exceptionally powerful grand moments, including, thrillingly, the entire ''Council Chamber Scene.''
This is a story of clashing factions and powerful families in 14th-century Genoa. It is, as well, the story of Simon Boccanegra, a pirate-made-Doge, who finds his long-lost daughter as he tries to still political strife. For the opera to come properly to life, a single-mindedness of vision is needed from director, designer, conductor, and principals.
With old sets, no new director has an easy job of it. At the Met, Tito Capobianco seemed to give up without ever trying. The static nature of his blocking, the inability to focus on the individuals of the drama, the tendency to play down the political aspects of the story and also to let the singers stand around and emote, all spoke of a director not at all sure what the work was about at any given point.
Fortunately, the best of the singing helped to lend some distinction to the evening. At the third performance, Sherrill Milnes was in resplendent voice as Boccanegra, his resonant baritone riding all the climaxes with ease, yet able to taper the voice down to make some very telling vocal-dramatic moments. There was warmth in his big duet with his newfound daughter, towering power in the Council Chamber scene, and, throughout, a good sense of paternal dignity.
As that daughter, Amelia, Anna Tomowa-Sintow showed herself to be a soprano steeped in the true Verdian tradition. Hers was a rare sort of performance: After an uneven opening aria, the voice bloomed sweepingly into the music and shone forth in authoritative phrasing, subtle shadings, vivid projection of words, and often sumptuous beauty of tone (with some haunting pianissimos thrown in). As an actress, she projected the facets of Amelia's personality with grace and impact.
The rest of the cast ranged from the excellence of Paul Plishka's Fiesco, through the barely serviceable Gabriele of Vasile Moldoveanu, to the unnecessarily gruff Paolo of Peter Glossop. And while the chorus sang well enough, it has begun to fall into very bad stock acting habits. Designer Pier Luigi Pizzi requested he not be credited for his sets and costumes. What was seen on stage bore no resemblance to what was seen at the San Francisco Opera several seasons back, when that company borrowed these same sets. Even there, the sets looked ponderous and not suited to the opera. At the Met, with the added drabness of Gil Wechsler's lighting, they looked rather drab and ugly.
Drabness is not something conductor James Levine could have been accused of here. At times, his attempts to weave delicate sonic fabrics were so successful one could barely hear the orchestra. But in most ways, this was vintage Levine Verdi, with a particularly crackling rendering of that magnificent Council Chamber scene.
''Simon Boccanegra'' has numerous performances this winter, including a radio broadcast Dec. 29. It can also be seen on PBS on the ''Live From the Met'' series next April 17.
The revival of Strauss's ''Elektra'' was to have been conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, but he bowed out because of illness. It still offered three Met firsts - Christa Ludwig's Klytemnestra, Johanna Meier's Chrysothemis, and Simon Estes' Orest - as well as the Met debut of Ute Vinzing.
Mr. Levine replaced Mr. Tennstedt. This opera clearly brings the best out of Levine. He sounded particularly comfortable at the first performance, always alert to the needs of the singers, without ever shirking the sonic requirements of Strauss's theatrically spellbinding score.
Sadly, the production was always an ugly one. Now it is badly lit, and it is marred by silly staging. But the best performers were always able to hold their own. Miss Ludwig's portrayal of the tortured Klytemnestra was a riveting sample of a great singing actress masterfully in control of a plum role. The voice may have been a bit small-scaled, but from the moment she appeared, she fully projected the morbid thinking of this guilt-racked creature. Miss Meier brought her accustomed warmth and unaffected femininity to her role.
Miss Vinzing will be a useful singer to have around. She got through the severely taxing title role commendably, with a sure knowledge of what she wanted to convey.
Further performances of ''Elektra'' with the above cast are scheduled for tonight and Dec. 11, 15 (radio broadcast performance), and 20.