In opera as in the grocery store there are the strange fruit (ugli, figli, migli). Usually they will sit in your fruit bowl and look comfortably exotic. Sometimes visiting children will play with them. And occasionally they will get eaten, almost always with surprising pleasure. Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is such a fruit, and Opera de Montréal / San Diego Opera production, particularly its excellent international cast, makes for refreshing eating.
The plot makes my head ache and I won’t repeat it; you can read it in the programme. There was an anxious, pencil-sharpening stillness in the air when the audience opened their exam books, perforated only by the occasional doubtful exhalation. Later, my neighbour turned to me in exasperation and mutely prodded his booklet with an index finger, but I refused to help him cheat.
Sometimes at the OdM, especially with the baritone Alexandre Sylvestre, a minor role will have one of the loveliest voices. Not tonight: the curtain lifted on him in sung conversation with baritone Daniel Sutin, whose supple singing made for a haunting Paolo. Sylvestre’s Pietro was velveteen, and together they set the standard high for the evening.
Not to be upstaged in this manliest of operas, baritone (yes another one) Alberto Gazale’s Simon was powerful, his colouring rich and ranging as the tormented Doge. He got even better as the evening progressed.
And it is a long evening, but the sadistically inclined may enjoy watching others struggle to remember who the characters are halfway through each act. Some took a proactive approach, such as the lady in row N who hauled a searchlight out of her handbag, plugged it into a portable generator, and began to read. It made the Bat-Signal look like an easybake oven. Bass Burak Bilgili paced what shadows remained as Fiesco, a mannequin for the big mean forces of history; he sang richly, bitterly, and with the great singer’s sense of vocal reserve.
A squad of talent onstage but it was tenor Roberto Di Biasio whose triumph as Gabriele brought tears to the eyes of my Standard Opera Companion (“jimmy legs” Model.) It was his evening; his singing was keen and pulsing with life.
Di Biasio and soprano Hiromi Omuga, 2008’s Madama Butterfly, moved stiffly and could have used a massage to limber up. Dressing rooms are left unheated with the understanding that stars will provide their own hot air (in Greenland they heat 64% of homes this way, which is why you never see singers from Greenland) but perhaps these two are modest enough for electric heaters?
Omuga was an uneven Amelia though always master of her voice; delicate at first, she was a stiff virgin in Act 1 and tended to lose consonants to the smooth run of song. She coloured better as an angry kidnap victim and protective daughter.
This production continues the local tradition of effective and totally unoriginal staging. Pieces moved, rotated, slid, together and apart without much effect in a slow motion kind of Tetris. A case of vodka to the stagehand who leads the revolution.
Visiting conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson pushed, when she could, and immeasurably helped the elephantine plot remain interesting; I would love to hear her leading the MSO.
Simon Boccanegra, March 17th, 20th, 22nd and 25th at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. For ticket information and other details, go to the Opera de Montréal site.
Lev Bratishenko is a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. He went a bit blind at this showing.