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Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
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In a major release in Verdi year, Deccas star tenor Joseph Calleja makes his first major opera release in a lead role, singing Gabriele Adorno in a stunning new Simon Boccanegra for Verdis bicentenary year.
Calleja sings Gabriele Adorno opposite Thomas Hampsons Simon Boccanegra in a live concert performance recorded at the Vienna Konzerthaus.
The first-class cast also includes Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais as Amelia, Luca Pisaroni as Paolo and Carlo Colombara as Fiesco. Top-league Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti leads the Wiener Symphoniker and Wiener Singakademie.
One of Verdis most compelling works, depicting the personal price of political success; moments of tender intimacy contrasted against the fiery drama of state politics and personal enmity.
Reviewing the performance, the Kurier exclaimed: What a voice, what poetry, what melodiousness, what radiance! Die Presse stated: There are not many tenors who can sing the role of Adorno as unpretentiously, tastefully, and free of bad habits as Joseph Calleja.
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Decca follows DG's lead in taping concert readings as a cheaper alternative to studio sessions, this one being from Vienna, and they haven't stinted in offering not just Hampson but their leading tenor, Joseph Calleja (now that Jonas Kaufmann has decamped to Sony) and the rising Italian baritone Luca Pisaroni, who was a standout in DG's live Don Giovanni in the role of Leporello (his charismatic presence is featured in a rash of opera DVDs). Yet in the long Prologue to Simon Boccanegra, the three featured baritones and basses (Paolo, Pietro, and Fiesco) are rather lackluster, including Pisaroni. The plot, centering on the intrigues of medieval Genoan politics, is confounding in its complexity, and in the Prologue we get a static recap of past history, so it takes committed, emotionally charged singing to arouse a listener's interest. That's not what we get here, even though the singers are all polished and undeniably Italianate. The competent but undistinguished conducting of Massimo Zanetti and indifferent playing from the Vienna Sym. bring things down, too.
The moment that Hampson enters as Boccanegra, however, he explodes with passion, a startling contrast. He's trying to deliver what Verdi's super-charged emotional world demands. The role fits his range well, too, since it's a high-lying part, and Hampson has plenty of power vocally. Yet like Domingo, as artistic as both stars are, the earthy, visceral, dangerous qualities of a Verdi baritone aren't present. In the past,when Hampson has chosen well, as in Macbeth, he can triumph through sheer will and presence, while on other occasions, as when he sings Germont in Traviata and Di Luna in Trovatore, he sounds as wrong as Pavarotti did in Otello. I always hear an American trying too hard to be an Italian.
The other two leads are sung by a Latvian soprano and Maltese tenor. Throughout most of her range, Kristine Opolais sounds warm and youthful, the tone is very appealing, and she doesn't sound Slavic. But she's not really inside the character of Amelia. There's a deficit of charisma and some shrill high notes. Still, given the choices on the current scene, Opolais makes a positive contribution. As Adorno, Calleja is saddled with a role that features one lovely aria and duet but not much more, and even the greatest tenors must play second fiddle, since the gripping love story here is a father-daughter one. Calleja has a soft-grained voice with a fast beat, but he like Hampson injects much-needed passion, and the romantic luster of his voice is undeniable. Many would consider Fiesco a leading role, and Carlo Colombara is Italianate, sonorous (several reviews describe the voice as cavernous), and effectively domineering. Memories of Boris Christoff aren't erased, however, just as no modern Boccanegra has really touched Tito Gobbi.
An impressive account of Simon Boccanegra requires a moving relationship between Amelia and her father, and here I think this recording succeeds pretty well. Opolais is touchingly vulnerable and feminine, and there are few shrill high notes in the duets with Hampson. He has never been a warm-hearted singer (a singular flaw in his Germont pere), and here he is guilty of singing at his daughter more than with her or to her. But Hampson has reigned as a pre-eminent baritone for a long time whose voice is still in wonderful shape - he has no trouble holding center stage. But can he suffer? That's required in the crowning Council Chamber scene, where Domingo wins the audience over completely. Hampson isn't in the same league. He doesn't convey tragic suffering in any believable way, even though his singing as such is assured and artful. The conducting is too lightweight here as well.
I've done my best to give a balanced appraisal, but the Boccanegra landscape hasn't really changed. The old mono recording with Gobbi and Christoff (EMI) began the postwar tradition of this opera on records, followed in stereo by DG's acclaimed account under Abbado with Cappuccilli, Freni, and Carreras, a cast that to my mind promised more than it delivered. Fortunately, there are a number of pirated live performances that stand out, particularly two from La Scala where you can hear more electricity from Cappuccilli, Carreras, Freni, and Domingo (as an alternative Adorno in the same production). To really enjoy Hampson's portrayal, you must have a taste for vocal suavity over wrenching tragedy.
Thomas Hampson (Simon Boccanegra), Joseph Calleja (Gabriele Adorno), Kristine Opolais (Amelia/Maria), Carlo Colombara (Fiesco), Luca Pisaroni (Paolo)
Wiener Symphoniker & Wiener Singakademie, Massimo Zanetti
Colombara is okay, but the Fiesco role should be performed by a basso profondo, which Colombara is not.
I do NOT regret purchasing this recording, though, thanks to the brilliant performance of Opolais and Calleja.