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San Francisco Opera Opening Night Performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra

Review of the September 5, 2008 performance published in papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

[Note: A shortened review was used in the newspapers, and a somewhat longer version ran on the Inside Bay Area website. This version includes both, plus restoring a few words cut or changed from the text orignally submitted.]

The ladies in their glittery jewels and jewel-toned gowns gleaned the oh's and ah's in the audience areas of the War Memorial Opera House at the Opening Gala last Friday - but it was the men on the stage who raked in the raves once the music started.

While San Francisco Opera's opening night choice -- Giuseppe Verdi's revised 1881 version of Simon Boccanegra-- is a lesser-known work, the production's powerful singing and polished acting brought a steady stream of artful pleasures.

Love and conflict, the usual themes of grand opera, are augmented in Boccanegra by a riveting portrayal of benevolent statesmanship.

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky's characterization of Simon Boccanegra, the plebian pirate-turned-Doge of the 14th Century city state of Genoa, was both brilliant and thrilling. Arguably the Pavarotti of baritones, Hvorostovsky possesses a richly burnished voice that is, quite simply, among the world's most tonally beautiful.

No matter how softly and sotto-voce he sang, his liquid-gold sound penetrated laser-like to the further-most areas of the 3,126-seat hall.

On the other hand, when he unleashed his vocal power to fortissimo levels, not an iota of its vaunted sheen was lost. Even though Verdi baritones are supposed to have a sort of "snarl" quality, Hvorostovsky's Olympian breath control and built-in sound equipment seem incapable of producing any harshness.

His Boccanegra characterization ranged convincingly from the youthful pirate-lover distraught over the death of his beloved Maria, through the agonies of the kidnapping of his toddler daughter in the Prologue, on into the mature, statesman-like leadership of his tenure as Genoa's peace-exhorting Doge, to his paternal tenderness at the reunion with his long-lost daughter, on to the bodily decline from Paolo's slow-acting poison leading and eventual death at the opera's end. Hvorostovsky delivered it all in spades.

Paolo, Boccanegra's plebian political honcho and eventual adversary, was sung potently by bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi. Tenor Marcus Haddock's bright tenor, resplendent with Verdian thrust on the high notes, made for an ardent Gabriele Adorno, Amelia's beloved. Ukrainian-born bass Vitali Kowaljow, as Fiesco, the grieving father and vengeance-pledged patrician, displayed fine vocalism and acting. His last act duo with the dying Boccanegra at the point of their reconciliation, provided one of the opera's most eloquently touching moments.

Barbara Frittoli sang the role of Amelia, Boccanegra's long-lost daughter, with vocal grace and beauty, but her rather bland acting did not quite match up to that of her testosterone-charged colleagues. Kenneth Kellogg, Erin Neff, and Dale Tracy were effective in supporting roles. Maestro Donald Runnicles, in his last Opening Night at the podium as SFO's Music Director, marshaled soloists, chorus, and orchestra into a masterful musical ensemble with taut tempos and compelling dynamics.

Michael Yeargan's Italianate sets recalled the vast perspective renderings of 14th century artist, Pietro Perugino. David Edwards' staging was particularly effective in the Act I Council Chamber scene, one of the most dramatic in Verdi's operas.

Now if we could only bring a Simon Boccanegra-like figure of peace and reconciliation to our world of 2008!

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