If one were able to choose a dream team for an exciting night at the opera, the trio of Placido Domingo, James Levine, and Giuseppe Verdi would be at the top of the list, and the Metropolitan Opera has brought all three together for a stirring and poignant revival of Simon Boccanegra.
With a solid cast that includes the Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Maria (aka Amelia), the tenor Joseph Calleja as her lover Gabriele, and the basso Ferrucio Furlanetto as Fiesco, it is an exciting and moving drama of love, betrayal, and revenge with some real-life 14th-century politics thrown in.
But it is Domingo and Levine, two of the main driving forces who over the past four decades and more have restored the Metropolitan Opera to its place of preeminence in the opera world, on whom the spotlight shines in this Simon Boccanegra.
It is Levine who in his 45 years as conductor and music director has molded the Met Orchestra into one of the finest orchestras in the world. And Domingo, the foremost dramatic tenor of our time, has been a stellar mainstay on the Met stage for nearly 50 years, singing over 650 performances and conducting 150 more.
The opera that brings them together on this outing was also one of Verdi's own favorites. A flop at its premiere at La Fenice in 1857 - for which politics may have biased its Venetian audience - Verdi recruited Arrigo Boito to rewrite the libretto and provided some new music for a production at La Scala 24 years later that was a big success.
If it has never enjoyed the popularity as some other Verdi operas, part of the reason may be that it departs from more familiar forms. There are fewer big, show-stopping arias and Verdi relies more heavily on orchestrations to explore the emotional swings of the main characters.
Each principal has an aria, but it is the magnificent duets and ensembles where the music most marvelously expresses the characters' inner feelings, from raging anger to poignant familial love. The big ensemble at the end of Act I, for example, with full chorus and quartet, is one of the most rousing hymns to peace ever written.
The opera is set in the 14th century, when the Italian city-states were wracked by the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. And at the time of its first premiere, Italy was embroiled in its violent struggle for unification and the themes of peace, patriotism, and forgiving one's enemies run through the score.
Another drawback for the opera's popularity may be the complexity of its plot. Opera has many story lines that test the limits of credulity, but Simon Boccanegra is of soap-opera intricacy. It is taken from a play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, and as we now would say, is "based on a true story." At least the character of the title really existed and was a Doge of Genoa.
It opens with a Prologue that sets up the back story. Simon is a former pirate who fell in love with Maria Fiesco, daughter of a Genoa nobleman. In fact, she bore Simon a daughter, also named Maria, and has since been locked up by her father. In short order Maria the mother dies, Maria the daughter flees from the convent to which Simon entrusted her, and Simon is elected Doge.
The story then fast-forwards 25 years. Simon is still Doge, and the Fiescos have gone into exile on the Ligurian coast and taken the name Grimaldi. The father Jacobo has been raising a young orphan girl named Amelia, and she has fallen in love with another patrician named Gabriele. But one of Simon's court cronies, Paolo, also wants to marry her, mainly for her money.
It does not take an opera buff to know that Amelia and Maria are one and the same, and when Simon discovers that his daughter is alive and well he will do anything to please her. The plot then thickens. She is kidnapped (by Paolo) but escapes, there is an uprising against Simon (led by Gabriele) that is put down, Paolo poisons Simon, and there is a general reconciliation before he dies at the curtain.
The Met production, by Giancarlo del Monaco, is over 20 years old but still one of the most handsome in the repertory. It is like a virtual reality trip to 14th-century Genoa, starting in a dark torch-lit piazza with stairs leading to alleyways in different directions, then moving to a villa overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and on to a majestic council chamber with ceiling and wall frescoes in the Doge's palace.
When this staging first opened at the Met, Domingo sang the tenor role of Gabriele. For a revival six years ago, he sang the baritone title role for the first time there. As a baritone, he still has the rich vocal resonance and emotion that made him one of the world's greatest tenors. It is manifest in even the smallest detail as when he conveys all the bliss of paternal love in singing the one word "figlia" upon learning Amelia is his long-lost daughter.
Haroutounian is making only her second appearance at the Met - she debuted last season in Don Carlo - and she is a thrilling addition to the roster. She has a lilting and silvery voice, full of joy, that climbs effortlessly to the upper registers. Calleja, who made his mark as Rigoletto a decade ago, sings Gabriele with ardor and passion, and Furlanetto brings all the anguish of a bereaved father to the role of Fiesco. And Brian Mulligan adds a credible villain as Paolo.