[Met Performance] CID:152040
Simon Boccanegra {21} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/28/1949.

(Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
November 28, 1949


SIMON BOCCANEGRA {21}
Giuseppe Verdi--Francesco Maria Piave/Arrigo Boito

Simon Boccanegra........Leonard Warren
Amelia..................Astrid Varnay
Gabriele Adorno.........Richard Tucker
Jacopo Fiesco...........Mihály Székely
Paolo Albiani...........Giuseppe Valdengo
Pietro..................Lorenzo Alvary
Maid....................Thelma Altman
Captain.................Paul Franke

Conductor...............Fritz Stiedry

Director................Désiré Defrčre
Set designer............Camillo Parravicini

Simon Boccanegra received seven performances this season.

[The costumes for Warren, Varnay and Valdengo were designed by Antoine Oberding.]


Review of Cecil Smith in Musical America

A revival worthy of the great traditions of the Metropolitan Opera restored Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" to the repertoire on Nov. 28, with Leonard Warren in the title role and Astrid Varnay as Maria, in her first Italian role at the Metropolitan. Fritz Stiedry conducted the opera with profound comprehension of its musical subtleties; and the unusually strong cast included Mihaly Szekely as Jacopo Fiesco; Giuseppe Valdengo as Paolo Albiani; Lorenzo Alvary as Pietro; Richard Tucker as Gabriele Adorno; and, in lesser roles, Paul Franke and Thelma Altman

"Simon Boccanegra" had not been heard in New York since 1939, when it was revived for Lawrence Tibbett, who had sung the title role in the first American performance of the opera, on Jan. 28, 1932. In the 1939 revival, on Jan. 13, Mr. Warren appeared as Paolo, his first role at the Metropolitan Opera. He had won the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, and had made his debut as a member of the company at a Sunday night concert a few weeks previously.

Verdi thought highly of "Simon Boccanegra," which failed at its premiere in Venice, in 1857, although it won success at other opera houses soon afterwards. Twenty-four years later, he persuaded Arrigo Boito to touch up Piave's libretto, and he thoroughly revised the score for a revival at La Scala in Milan, on March 24, 1881. This revised version is one of his noblest and psychologically most penetrating works. Produced at the peak of his creative powers, when he was already at work on "Otello," it reflects the wisdom and compassion of his mature years.

It cannot be denied that "Simon Boccanegra" is flawed and uneven. The awkwardness of the libretto is still apparent, the joinery between the music of 1857 and that of 1881 is sometimes glaringly obvious; and the opera lacks the relentless dramatic concentration of works like "Aida" and "Otello." Yet when all is said and done, "Simon Boccanegra" remains a towering achievement, which should not be spared from the repertoire. Simon stands - with Hans Sachs, King Marke, and Arkel -- as one of the few venerable and intellectually admirable characters in the operatic world. His death scene is comparable to that of Boris Godounoff in its richness of dramatic overtones.

In recent years, Mr. Warren has added greatly to his stature as an actor, and this improvement has made itself felt in the refinement and emotional power of his singing. His Simon Boccanegra, like his Rigoletto and his Falstaff, is a distinguished characterization. He was tentative in the prologue, failing to suggest the savage strength and impulsiveness of the corsair who had swept the African pirates off the seas and persuaded the daughter of Fiesco to give herself to him. But in Act I, Scene 1, when Simon recognizes his own daughter; in the magnificent finale of Act I, Scene 2, when the Doge bursts out, "Plebe ! Patrizi ! Popolo dalla ferocestoria!" pleading for reconciliation; and in the death scene at the end, Mr. Warren sang and acted very movingly. Such details as the beautiful pianissimo phrase, on the word, "figlia," an F held for two measures and then dropping an octave, in Act I, Scene 1, as Simon gazes after Maria as she disappears into the castle, were exquisitely treated. Mr. Warren's voice did not have the full measure of its usual splendor at this performance, but the very fact that he was so careful added to the nuance of his singing.

Now that Astrid Varnay has sung her first Italian role at the Metropolitan so sumptuously, we can have high hopes of hearing the dramatic Verdi parts in the grand manner again, as they used to be done. Miss Varnay is one of the most intelligent actresses in the company, and she made the most of her opportunities. Commentators have complained that Maria, Gabriele, and the other characters in the opera are only stock figures, which pale beside Simon. Not so, when artists like Miss Varnay interpret them. Her Maria was a lovable and vital person in the action from her first appearance in the garden of the Grimaldi palace. She made the scene of recognition with her father excitingly realistic, and she solved brilliantly the difficult problem of Maria's sudden appearances to save her father in Act I, Scene 2, and Act II.

In her first aria, 'Come in quest' ora bruna,' Miss Varnay was nervous, producing some strident and unsteady top tones. But as the act progressed she sang with superb assurance and range of color. She could produce a ringing, heroic phrase one moment and spin a lovely pianissimo the next, in a way that reminded one of Rosa Ponselle. Only an artist of the first rank could have achieved so beautifully that terrifying phrase at the end of the gigantic ensemble in Act I, Scene 2, when everything pauses and Maria trills on a pianissimo F sharp, with a downward leap of an octave. Miss Varnay is superbly fitted for Italian dramatic-soprano roles. Let us hope that the Metropolitan management will not neglect its opportunities.

Richard Tucker's Gabriele Adorno is far and away the best thing he has done at the Metropolitan. It is an extremely difficult role both vocally and dramatically, designed for a heroic tenor and actor. As to the dramatic demands, one can point out that Mr. Tucker displayed great intelligence in what he did not attempt to do. He concentrated on the musical elements of the role, and he sang with stirring power, style and technical virtuosity. Any well-equipped tenor could get through the big solo arias of the opera creditably, if not with the brio that Mr. Tucker infused into them. But only a highly skilled singer could achieve the intensity and sense of co-ordination Mr. Tucker revealed in the duets and ensembles. In the exciting phrases sung with Maria in the reconciliation scene of Act I and in the ensemble just before the close of the opera, his voice had a new freedom and brilliance. If the passion of his singing was not always spontaneous, it was natural in style.

It was good to welcome back the distinguished Hungarian bass, Mihaly Szekely, absent last season from the Metropolitan. Mr. Szekely has one of the finest bass voices of the day, and he is a musician of the first rank. His Fiesco did not reveal the dramatic finish of his King Marke, or his Landgraf in "Tannhäuser," but it was superbly sung. Like all of the others, he was ill at ease in the prologue, as his performance of the aria, 'II lacerato spirito,' revealed. In the later ensembles, and especially in the scene with Simon at the end of the opera, Mr. Szekely came into his own.

Giuseppe Valdengo's Paolo was, naturally, the most Italianate characterization of the performance. He sang with an elan, a passionate vigor, and an instinctive sense of climax that seemed inborn rather than acquired. Especially gripping was his treatment of the brief scene with Fiesco in the last act, before Paolo is led off to be executed. He had the dignity of a man who is staring death in the face. Mr. Valdengo sang the great scene of the course in Act I, Scene 2 well, but he overacted it. Here as elsewhere, Desire Defrčre's stage direction was trite and unimaginative. Lorenzo Alvary's Pietro was excellent.

To Fritz Stiedry must be attributed the major credit for the nobility of the performance. Always with his singers and considerate of their needs, he nevertheless kept the music moving. One rarely encounters such scrupulous observance of Verdi's dynamic markings. Far more important, however, was the psychological penetration with which he interpreted the score. In the fascinating duets, trios, and larger ensembles in which the opera abounds, Mr. Stiedry took pains that each character should be clearly differentiated in the web of voices and orchestra. One might have wished for fierier energy in a few passages, but the outburst of the populace in Act I, Scene 2, was thrillingly intense, and the tempos were always wisely chosen. Most moving of all was the final scene, in which he gave Verdi's music its rightful breadth and poignance. The hush that fell over the audience was a high tribute to the artistry of conductor and performers in this exacting finale, which represents the very antithesis of operatic blood and thunder.



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