The fifth revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 Simon Boccanegra might have slipped by unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the participation of superstar Placido Domingo. Had he been reprising the tenor role (which he played here in 1997), it would have been noteworthy enough. The fact that this time it marks his house debut as a baritone, playing Verdi’s complex title character, inevitably make this one of London’s operatic highlights of the year.
Domingo doesn’t fully convince as a baritone. As we’re accustomed to a distinctly baritonal quality to his voice, for much of the time he sounds little different from his other Verdi roles and when he does force the voice down there’s a slight constriction of his usual expressiveness. While there’s nothing essentially wrong with the sound, it produces a discomforting effect and moments of tenorial flow come as something of a relief.
What we get, of course, is the singer’s magnificent and irreplaceable stage presence. As with Olivier’s late, late TV appearance as King Lear, we get a lifetime of experience from the greatest performer of a generation poured into the character; true stateliness, grace and depths of suffering that no-one else can bring to muster. What Domingo still has, which Olivier had lost by the time of an otherwise heart-wrenching performance, is sheer power.
With so much darkness Boccanegra can sometimes feel pitched at one level and one of the strengths of the casting is the balance of voices, from Ferruccio Furlanetto’s velvety basso Fiesco (a terrific battle of giants in his encounters with Domingo) to the light, bright tenor of Joseph Calleja, reminiscent of the young Jose Carreras, who was almost peerless as Gabriele Adorno. Jonathan Summers, a little raddled of voice these days, is a petulant and maundering Paolo and adds another layer of baritonal sound.
Marina Poplavskaya has her work cut out as Amelia because Anja Harteros made such an impact in the performances of the Ian Judge production two years ago. The soprano does a fair job, a little pushed at the top but youthful and touching in the reconciliation scene with Domingo and still justifying the confidence the management has shown in her in recent years.
Moshinsky’s production is solid enough, as elegant as his Otello and resembling a Renaissance painting in the groupings of opulent costumes, but is starting to look a tad too traditional by today’s standards.
Antonio Pappano conducts with his usual fervour and much delicacy, the combination of finesse and passion he brought to Don Carlo, and the Royal Opera Chorus is on great form.
There’s plenty to make this a memorable and far from routine revival. With the tenor’s 70th birthday looming, it could just be the last time we see him on the London stage and the choice to move into new territory might just be what’s needed to see him at something like his best. A reprise of one of his countless tenor roles might not have done that at this stage.
Simon Boccanegra will be broadcast on BBC2 on 10 July and will be shown on a big screen in Trafalgar Square and around the country on Tuesday 13 July. It will also be performed as a BBC Prom (including live broadcast on BBC Radio 3) on Sunday 18 July.