David Gockley has done the impossible--he has overcome the San Francisco Opera's Verdi curse. Traditionally they do better Verdi at the Palo Alto Opera than the San Francisco Opera. I have actually never heard such ghastly singing as in Verdi in San Francisco. Gockley has only been in SF for a couple of seasons so perhaps he's booking people based on how they sing now instead of how they will sound in 5 years.
I am talking about the current production of Simon Boccanegra starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I haven't forgotten the slogan I once made up about this opera--never go to an opera with 3 baritones. If you don't like a lot of low growling in your opera, you should avoid this one like the plague.
The plot is a little hard to follow. I will try to simplify. There is this girl named Amelia (soprano) and two guys are in love with her: Gabrieli (tenor) and Paolo (baritone). She likes Gabrieli and her guardian likes Paolo. So far par for an Italian opera. Paolo is an ally of the Doge of Genoa, Simon Boccanegra (baritone), and was primarily responsible for the fact that Simon, a commoner, was made doge. He thinks he deserves Amelia and intends to collect on his debt.
This is where the plot gets complicated. Amelia is adopted. She and Simon are together one day, and she begins talking about her memories of her childhood. These memories coincide with Simon's memories of his now dead wife and the old woman he left the child with. Amelia says she remembers a sailor, and this was Simon.
So Simon is her father and Jacopo Fiesco (bass) is her grandfather on the mother's side. One of the things that makes the plot so complicated is that Amelia is adopted as a Grimaldi and no one else in the plot is identified as a Grimaldi. Jacopo is her guardian, and he's named Fiesco. So what's that about?
Everyone makes up with everyone else, except for Paolo who poisons Simon. Who dies and is succeeded as the doge by Gabrieli who marries Amelia.
One or two of the small parts are also baritones. There are extended duets between baritone and bass and even between two baritones. For me this is tedious. Whether or not the opera is a success depends on the Simon character, here sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Dmitri is a lovely lyric baritone who is required to sing sweetly and sentimentally with his daughter (sung beautifully by Barbara Frittoli making her San Francisco Opera debut), and still be sufficiently dramatic to support the heavy scenes with the other low voices. Dmitri is perfect for this kind of part. The beauty of his voice assuages the sense of growling.
Verdi was attracted to the subject matter, I'm sure, because of Simon's role as a uniter and peace maker in early Italy. He is seen trying to make peace with Venice while everyone else shouts for war. Verdi was an activist in the process of unifying Italy, and always has a purpose in his political operas.
Also excellent in their parts were the Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow and the American tenor Marcus Haddock. I hope we hear more from Marcus.