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Opera review: Placido Domingo in L.A. Opera's 'Simon Boccanegra'

James Conlon
Los Angeles Times

By Chris Pasles

Perhaps to establish their bona fides, critics reviewing Plácido Domingo in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” tend to point out that Domingo is not a baritone, as the role calls for. While it’s true that Domingo first positioned himself as a baritone, that was a long time ago, and he very quickly moved up to tenor roles, in which he established a stellar reputation.

In recent years, however, the 71-year-old, who is also general director of Los Angeles Opera, has transposed some tenor roles downward, and Boccanegra seems to sit reasonably comfortably in his range.

None of these issues mattered much Saturday to an enthusiastic audience when Domingo starred in Verdi’s opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Baritone, schmaritone: Domingo was a commanding vocal and dramatic presence, and especially touching in his death scene.

To be sure, his voice has contracted in dimension and has acquired some sandpaper, but there was still plenty of power and expression when needed. One could argue that Domingo’s dramatic capabilities have actually grown. In addition to his death scene, one thinks of Boccanegra’s meditations on power, his deep-felt efforts to heal the city's and country’s social and political divisions, and especially his restraint in the touching scene in which he discovers his long-lost daughter, Amelia.

“Simon Boccanegra” is a strange child in the Verdi canon. It flopped when it premiered in 1857, but it took on new life when the composer revised it in 1881, with the essential input of Arrigo Boito, who created the amazing Council Scene in Act 1. Even so, it hasn’t exactly become an audience favorite, perhaps because of the low, dark vocal coloring — there is only one female principal role — and the gloom and improbability of the plot. It usually takes someone with the stature of Domingo to bring it to the stage.

As Boccanegra’s daughter, Ana Maria Martínez looked ravishing and sang with a slender, silvery soprano, negotiating the trills in the pleas for peace with confidence. Stefano Secco, making his L.A. Opera debut, was an ardent Gabriele Adorno, Amelia’s jealous lover, although his tenor tended to tighten in the heights.

Vitalij Kowaljow sang Jacopo Fiesco, Boccanegra’s implacable nemesis, with lustrous power and dignity, and without resorting to any lip-curling snarling. Paolo Gavanelli was admirable as Paolo Albiani, the villainous plebian king-maker (actually, doge-maker; this was Genoa, after all).

As Pietro, Paolo’s right-hand man, Robert Pomakov sounded a bit scruffy. In the small roles of Amelia’s maid and an anonymous captain, Sara Campbell and Todd Strange acquitted themselves honorably. Michael Yeargan’s open, barren, colonnaded set, where one palace seemingly suited all, didn’t much help the singers project, which was possibly why they so often simply planted themselves near the front of the stage.

On the other hand, maybe Elijah Moshinsky’s blocky direction was responsible for that. Still, Moshinsky’s best moments came in how he positioned Boccanegra and Paolo as bitter enemies in the Council Scene.

Peter J. Hall designed the attractive period costumes. Duane Schuler was the crafty lighting designer.
In some ways, the hero of the evening was conductor James Conlon, who emphasized the transparency, grace and lyricism in the score, as well as Verdi’s unique virile energy. There is surprisingly more of the former than the latter. In fact, considering the predominant male voices, “Boccanegra” is quite subtle and delicate in scoring. Conlon was also considerate of the voices, cushioning the smaller ones and letting the orchestra rip to comment on the larger ones.

The chorus, honed by associate conductor and chorus master Grant Gershon, sounded conspiratorial and lusty as necessary.