Verdi for Adults

 Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto in Simon Boccanegra | Lyric Opera of Chicago

Some operas can be likened to sparkling Champagne or a bracing Pinot Grigio. Verdi’s mighty Simon Boccanegra is more like a rich Burgundy – its colors are complex, and its deeply satisfying beauty lingers memorably.  This season, when Lyric presents this work for only the fifth time in the company’s history, audiences will thrill to a musical grandeur and dramatic power that precious few other operas in the Italian repertoire can communicate.

Thomas Hampson, who sings the title role after previous Lyric triumphs as Verdi’s Macbeth and Germont, refers to Simon Boccanegra as “Verdi for adults.” That quip is spoken only partly in jest, for this opera does indeed speak to an audience that craves more than ravishing melodies. “Boccanegra is real drama in music,” Hampson asserts. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t beautiful musical moments, but they’re pretty finely chiseled psychologically. The incredible power of this piece is somehow in its cohesion, more than its selection of isolated moments.” Hampson does agree, however, with his colleague in Lyric’s production, Ferruccio Furlanetto (Lyric’s marvelous Boris in 2011-12), who describes the Boccanegra score as “gorgeous – absolutely gorgeous.”

In Hampson’s view, there are few arias more beautiful than the entrance aria of Amelia, Boccanegra’s heroine. In addition, “There are few bass arias more wrenching and more profound in their humility than Fiesco’s ‘Il lacerato spirito.’ [The tenor] Gabriele’s frustrated and heroic moment at the beginning of Act Two is as fine a mature Verdi aria as any. At the same time, there’s something inherently more theatrically bound up in these moments than in other moments of other Verdi operas.”

Boccanegra’s thorny history began with the cold reception the public gave it at the first performance (Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, 1857). Certain critics found merit in it, but that didn’t especially comfort Verdi: he wrote sadly to a friend that “Boccanegra was almost a greater fiasco in Venice thanTraviata. I thought I had done something fairly good, but now it seems I was mistaken.” La traviata’s disastrous premiere had been followed by a triumphant second performance, but Boccanegra took 23 years to win over its audience.

Success came thanks to a collaboration with Arrigo Boito, who later produced Verdi’s texts for Otello and Falstaff. Composer and librettist made massive changes in Boccanegra, including the addition of the magnificent Council Chamber scene.  One of the most inspired episodes in late-period Verdi, it became the centerpiece of the whole work. The “new and improved” Boccanegra was introduced in 1881 at La Scala, where it earned a rapturous reception. Victory was sweet indeed for Verdi, who loved the piece and had always longed to see it find its footing.

In the revised version, Boccanegra became one of the noblest and most sympathetic characters in any Verdi opera. The role requires a truly masterful interpreter, and no one knows that better than Hampson (he’s won enormous praise for his portrayal of Boccanegra at the Met and in Vienna). In singing it, the renowned American baritone cites “legato [beautiful, smooth phrasing] and generosity of spirit” as essential. For him, embodying Boccanegra onstage is all about “maintaining the intensity of conviction in this music.”

Baritones who sing Boccanegra invariably find the role so gratifying that they willingly accept the lack of a surefire, crowd-pleasing aria. There is an episode that compensates, and in a big way: the solo passage midway in the Council Chamber scene, in which the Doge passionately calls for peace between the duelling factions of patricians and plebeians. “This is a great moment of humanistic power, in my opinion,” declares Hampson. “It’s a great honor as an actor and singer to represent a monumental look at how we treat one another on this earth.”

Boccanegra must deal with two antagonists in this opera: the vicious, scheming Paolo and the implacable Fiesco. The latter is one of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s signature roles, performed by the legendary Italian bass in nine major international houses to date. There’s an ambition in Fiesco that Furlanetto recognizes. “More than anything, I believe that he’d love to rule the repubblica marinara [maritime republic] of Genoa. The noble Fieschi family, as one of the city’s most important families, wanted the power, and they were very rich. Fiesco has a daughter who is in love with a sailor. Unfortunately she gets pregnant, she dies, and Fiesco’s hate [for Boccanegra] is mounting, mounting, mounting.” When Boccanegra becomes Doge, “Fiesco’s only possibility was to run away and hide.”

Furlanetto strives to give a rounded view of Fiesco. “You need to understand the reason for this hate,” he explains. “Whatever Fiesco thinks, if you are in his position, then he’s correct. He’s a bit like Boris Godunov. In getting under the skin of these characters, you try to make them sympathetic and to give them a kind of honesty. Even though Fiesco is extremely aggressive, sounding nasty and full of revenge, his reasons are good, according to his position and his way of thinking.”

The role gives Furlanetto important episodes where Fiesco’s integrity can be revealed. One of those moments occurs when the villainous Paolo urges Fiesco to kill Boccanegra. “First of all, the knife was considered a very cowardly instrument. If you wanted to kill somebody, it would have been a sword, in a legal duel. Using the knife this way would show the difference between an official duel and a murder. Fiesco rejects even the idea of it. ‘Osi a Fiesco a proporre un misfatto?’ he says – ‘You dare to suggest a crime to Fiesco?’”

Furlanetto, who has played Fiesco opposite Hampson in both Vienna and New York, warmly praises his colleague: “He is Boccanegra. When you have to put together the final duet, which is so extremely intense emotionally – when you have someone next to you acting and reacting in such a fantastic way – everything becomes so easy and believable. In the end, what we’re searching for is to be believable, and to reach the hearts of the audience.

“When Boccanegra is given a beautiful production,” concludes Furlanetto, “and when you have a wonderful cast, the audience will receive something that will remain in their hearts. It’s positive, beautiful human emotions, which are rare in these times.”