Met's 'Simon Boccanegra': Byzantine Plot, Great Opera

Simon Boccanegra

Opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

The noted British music critic Andrew Porter, who is particularly respected for his knowledge of Verdi, has called ''Simon Boccanegra'' his ''favorite Verdi opera.'' Other opera experts agree that this is one of Verdi's most sublime works.

But the opera has never won enormous favor with the public. There is one certain and another possible reason why this opera has not caught on.

Without a doubt, the plot of ''Simon Boccanegra'' is convoluted. No amount of preparation -- reading the libretto, studying plot summaries -- will unravel its absurdities. It has more entanglements than a bowl of spaghetti. Yet, this should not deter anyone interested in a great work magnificently performed from watching ''Simon Boccanegra'' when the new Metropolitan Opera production, which premiered in January, is broadcast on PBS on April 26 (check local listings).

The opera is rich with human dilemmas, confrontations, and ironies: a flawed leader who never wanted power; a father racked by guilt, who is reunited with the daughter he feels unworthy of; a young woman whose natural enthusiasm for life is undermined by the mystery of her upbringing. These are universal human situations. And it was the opportunity to portray such situations that drew Verdi to a particular libretto, even if its plot lacked coherence. Opera is best at depicting archetypal, powerful emotions. And ''Simon Boccanegra'' does this triumphantly.

However, the emotions here are portrayed with rare subtlety and understatement, which may be the other reason this opera has not become a favorite. Other Verdi plots don't make much sense, but at least there is compensating grandeur and soaring arias. Not so here. This is a muted, often restrained score, written when Verdi was young, but revised in 1881, when Verdi was 68 and thought himself retired from the opera business. Yet he had never reconciled himself to the initial failure of ''Simon Boccanegra.''

The second time around he got it right. The music is a gossamer patch of ensembles, dialogues, and soliloquies, with a few stand-alone arias. The leading roles demand major Verdi voices, but the singers must meld their efforts and egos into this ensemble opera.

The Met's production has exactly such a cast. The Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov, formerly of the Kirov Opera, is a moving Boccanegra. Chernov is the next Sherrill Milnes, a dashing singing-actor with a pliant, robust baritone voice. The role of Amelia, the daughter of Boccanegra, is sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Though her lyric soprano has lost a little of its bloom, her sound remains vibrant and warm; she brings great vulnerability and depth to her portrayal.

Not many tenors with the celebrity stature of Placido Domingo would relish what is really a supporting part in a major Met production. But Domingo's ardent, vocally sumptuous portrayal of Gabriel, Amelia's beloved, leaves no doubt that he is inspired by this role.

James Levine conducts the authoritative, spacious performance. The production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco, is traditional and at times wrong-headed, which doesn't help matters much. The impressive sets and costumes of Michael Scott are virtual re-creations of the Fiesco Palace interiors and the square outside the Church of San Lorenzo in Genoa, though from a later era than that in which the opera is set. They should look colorful and suitably grand on TV. And watching at home, where close-ups and subtitles can draw you intimately into the story, may be the best way to appreciate this production of Verdi's overlooked late work.

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