His excellent adventure in the baritone guise of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra began scarcely a season ago, and already Plácido Domingo has passed through a half-dozen opera houses in the role, with more in the offing. But is there really room on the shelves for two videos, filmed just five months apart?
Possibly, but of the two that have been rushed into commercial release, the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of February 6, 2010, on Sony Classical, is expendable. In the house, Giancarlo del Monaco's going-on-antique production serves well enough as a backdrop for a great performance. One or two very literal tableaux (a piazza in Genoa, the doge's council chamber) still make an impression. What's missing on this occasion is the great performance. Of illuminating dramatic interaction, there is none. Apart from Domingo, the cast is lackluster. For James Levine, who has conducted two previous video versions, the third time's not the charm. There's scrupulous musicianship, to be sure. But except in the clashes of the great council scene (a late and prophetic addition to the score), it seldom sparks much immediacy or excitement.
The Covent Garden version on EMI Classics, taped at three Covent Garden performances the following July, offers both these qualities in spades. The unit set for Elijah Moshinsky's production is simplicity itself — a row of columns on one side, a wall on the right. Within the Spartan frame, however, the tangled yarn unspools in legible, vivid detail. Both in epic passages (as when Boccanegra, in shock, is proclaimed doge of Genoa) and in private ones (as when a traitor poisons Boccanegra's pitcher of water), Moshinsky inspires a vibrant cast of singing actors to give their very best. Antonio Pappano gives an impassive account of the mysterious opening bars, but he compensates amply later on, as much with delicacy as with suspense.
For a viewer whose sole interest is Domingo's interpretation, either version will do. Throughout his career, the dark sheen of his instrument has put critics in mind of a baritone (which baritone?). As an actor, Domingo is in his element with Boccanegra's tribulations. Still, the rewards of his portrayal come at a cost. His vocality unbalances Verdi's palette beyond recognition, as if the Man with the Blue Guitar showed up instead with a red one. No question about it: he sounds like a tenor. In the prologue, which takes place a quarter century before the main action, he shakes with strain — an unfortunate reminder of his long years of service. In the council scene, his calls for peace and love roll forth with easy majesty, and the maledictions that follow come off thrillingly as studies for the most rattling public pronouncements of Otello. Nuances vary. Grasping at straws, one might say that, at the Met, Domingo yields more to melody and conventional "operatic" sentiment, whereas at Covent Garden he digs deeper into each word and thought.
These observations apply to the performances more generally. Consider Boccanegra's principal adversary, the flinty patrician Jacopo Fiesco, whose unwed daughter has dishonored her family in bearing the commoner Boccanegra a child. As the curtain rises on the prologue, the hapless mother has just breathed her last, and the child has vanished. Until the wretched Boccanegra can produce the lost child, Fiesco will hear none of his pleas for reconciliation. At the Met, James Morris's frayed, gnarled tones are of a piece with his harsh, crude characterization. At Covent Garden, Ferruccio Furlanetto employs his intrinsically even and noble sound to conjure up a torn personality of countless facets — proud, sarcastic, shattered yet not too shattered to gloat at another's misfortunes, and at the breaking point, something of a crybaby, too: it's a mesmerizing portrait.
As Boccanegra's daughter, Maria, alias Amelia Grimaldi, the Met's likable, statuesque and rather unruffled soprano Adrianne Pieczonka stands and delivers the full-bodied, refulgent tone of a Wagnerian jugendlich dramatische, with appropriate facial expressions and all the animation you would expect of a Victorian matron in Elijah. At Covent Garden, the impulsive Marina Poplavskaya conveys Amelia's fragility and yearning both in her body language and in a fine-spun silver tone that at times feels movingly fragile, too. As Amelia's lover, Gabriele Adorno, the Met fields Marcello Giordani, robust but monochromatic — no match for Covent Garden's ardent Joseph Calleja, whose lucid diction, urgent expression and golden timbre combine to set his lines ablaze. (His wig and costume, though, are a scandal.)
The Met entrusts the schemer Paolo Albiani to the lanky blond bass Stephen Gaertner, who cowers like a conscience-stricken Lutheran pastor, thus missing the mark entirely. Yet he wields his firm, lean instrument with authority. In the same part, Covent Garden's unabashedly melodramatic Jonathan Summers scowls bitterly, yet his caricature is right on the money. At the Met, Richard Bernstein gives Paolo's sidekick Pietro a burly voice and a ferret's darting eyes, which work well enough. At Covent Garden, the bland, aristocratic Lukas Jakobski hints at more intriguing secrets.
Adrienne Pieczonka; Plácido Domingo, Marcello Giordani, James Morris; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine. Production: Giancarlo del Monaco. Bonus features. Sony Classical 88697 80664 9 (2 DVDs), 149 mins., subtitled
Marina Poplavskaya; Plácido Domingo, Joseph Calleja, Ferruccio Furlanetto; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano. Production: Elijah Moshinsky. EMI Classics 9178259 (2 DVDs), 145 mins. (opera), 26 mins. (bonus), subtitled