Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Unfinished Season, April 2020, Simon Boccanegra

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We follow our previous post on the Metropolitan’s unfinished 2019-2020 season (https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/7161019381826796963) with a backward glance at the month of April 2020. This was the month, now a full year ago, in which Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the New York State stay-at-home order and the public-school and public-space closure edict, including theatres of course, through the middle of May. That April, the State suffered more COVID-19 infections than any country, the U.S. aside. The Governor mandated that masks be worn in public and that New York City subway service be suspended between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. It was clear from the start that the economic fall-out from the lock-down would be drastic. The arts industry alone was projected to lose tens of billions of dollars in revenue. As a point of reference, year after year, attendance at Broadway’s 41 theatres outpaced that of all of the city’s professional sports teams combined. 

The performing arts on both sides of the Atlantic responded with extraordinary urgency to the human, artistic, and financial catastrophe. By the middle of March opera companies had developed plans to stream performances without cost. The Met opened its archive of television and Live in HD transmissions for daily broadcast. The collections of the Vienna State Opera and the Paris Opera, to name just two, were made similarly available.  

The most elaborate of all Met initiatives was the four-hour-long gala concert streamed live on the company website beginning at 1:00 p.m. on April 25. The total number of views including replays was expected to reach one million by midnight. Forty Met stars, almost all recorded at home, participated in the program--Peter Mattei from Sweden, Piotr Beczala from Poland, René Pape from Germany, Roberto Alagna from France, Renée Fleming from Virginia, Matthew Polenzani from New York and the rest scattered far and wide. Some went ahead and accompanied themselves on the piano. The most unusual and moving accompaniment was that arranged for Joyce DiDonato in Handel’s “Ombra mai fu.” Each member of the Met’s viola section had recorded his or her part separately in tribute to Vincent Lionti, a Met violist who had succumbed to COVID just three weeks earlier. And Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the orchestra and chorus, again recorded individually, in an uplifting rendition of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero.”

The Met’s April 20, 2020 revival of the 1995 production of Simon Boccanegra was, of course, not to be. The opera had been on the boards at 39th Street and at Lincoln Center since its company premiere in 1932. With its complex scenario and dark musical texture, Boccanegra is less approachable than the familiar Verdi titles that are staples of the world’s opera houses. A favorite of critics and operaphiles, it remains anchored on the fringe of the core repertoire. Audiences in 2020 had anticipated the return of Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez as Boccanegra, Ailyn Pérez, one of the company’s leading lyric sopranos, as his daughter Amelia, and spinto tenor Joseph Calleja as her lover, Gabriele.

The 1857 Venice premiere of the opera had been a failure. Verdi himself thought it too sad, too gloomy, and weighted down by a preponderance of low male voices. He revised the opera twenty-five years later with the help of librettist Arrigo Boito, the composer’s soon-to-be collaborator on his final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. The maturity Verdi had developed in the interim, palpable in Don Carlo, Aïda and other scores, infuses the work with uncommon gravitas. The revised version was a success at La Scala in 1881.

Paternal love and political intrigue are the dominant themes of Simon Boccanegra. Early in the opera’s prologue, the patrician Fiesco, grief-stricken by his daughter’s recent death, expresses the depth of his sorrow in the bass aria “Il Lacerato spirito (The wounded spirit).” We hear Ezio Pinza, the Met’s first Fiesco, as he sets a very high standard for his successors in the role.


Fiesco’s daughter and her lover, Simon Boccanegra, then a young corsair, had had a child. Twenty-five years later, in Act I, Simon, now the benevolent Doge of Genoa, quells a rebellion that erupts in the Council Chamber and inveighs for peace between his city and Venice. His heartfelt plea dominates the ensemble that includes the voices of Fiesco, Amelia (revealed to be Simon’s daughter), and the other principals. This excerpt features Lawrence Tibbett whose Simon was the lynchpin of the Met’s original triumphant production.

The Council Chamber Scene, added in the Verdi/Boito revision, is one of the most memorable pages in the composer’s canon and is undoubtedly responsible for the opera’s claim to lyric stages everywhere.


 

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