Monday, September 22, 2008

A Tragedy of Republic

Whether or not, as Daniel Mendelsohn has argued, good people (and, as I have extrapolated, good fortune) "make good subjects for operas," there remains Aristotle's precept that tragedy (on the basis of the data available to him) is basically about αγών (antagonism) between two nobles. This should remind us of how detached the subject matter of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides was from either Athenian democracy or the concerns of Plato's "Republic." Yet the primary strength of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Simon Boccanegra (at least in the revised 1881 version currently being performed by the San Francisco Opera) resides in its setting in a republic (fourteenth-century Genoa) and the αγών between two men, one of whom (Jacopo Fiesco) is noble by birth, while the other (Boccanegra) is a commoner whose nobility resides in his deeds. Operatic αγών usually tends to bring down both antagonists, along with a generous number of supporters on both sides, often to the extent that no one is left to bring about a reconciliation. In this case, however, the two antagonists are basically "good people;" the αγών is more an opposition of their value systems through which each, respectively, tries to "do the right thing."

The 1881 libretto for Simon Boccanegra is by Arrigo Boito. I find this particularly interesting since Boito tends to be best known for his libretto for Otello, set in fifteenth-century Cyprus, which, at that time, was part of the Venetian republic. However, there is little noble about any of the characters that Shakespeare conceived for this play; and there is no shortage of suggestive vulgar language to play to the baser instincts of the audience. Verdi and Boito smoothed over much of that vulgarity, but neither of them stinted on tapping into J(I)ago's truly vile nature. Furthermore, there is little sense of anyone putting priority on "doing the right thing;" and the αγών between Otello and Jago is about as destructive as things get. On the other hand Otello was first performed in 1887; so it may be that, for all the ways in which Verdi and Boito fixed up the 1857 version, Simon Boccanegra did not attract audiences because it did not have enough blood and guts.

The San Francisco Opera production is an import from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, originally conceived by Elijah Moshinsky, a director who never seems to be afraid taking a cerebral approach to cerebral subject matter. It is not the easiest opera to stage, particularly because so many of the plot elements are not explicitly enacted and only referred to by the characters. Reading the synopsis is thus a somewhat daunting matter. Not only does one have to sort out past and present into a coherent time line, but one also has to deal with names that are changed for reasons of political intrigue.

Nevertheless, it is ultimately the complexity of the situation that makes the opera so intriguing, particularly when one recognizes how nondestructive the underlying αγών is. Yes, reconciliation with Fiesco only comes when Boccanegra is on the brink of death; but it is a reconciliation that has been taking shape as the plot unfolds. So we as audience desire it as surely as we expect it. Ultimately, there is only one "agent of destruction" in the opera, Paolo Albiani. If we overlook Moshinsky's decision to give us a brief glimpse of Amelia during the orchestral introduction, Albiani is the first character we encounter; and we see him buying votes to assure the election of Boccanegra as Doge of Genoa. In other words we first see him as a destructive force against the integrity of Genoese republican politics; so it is no great surprise when he later turns that force against Boccanegra, first through political machinations and, when those are thwarted, through poisoning.

This brings us to why there is antagonism between Boccanegra and Fiesco in the first place: It is the antagonism of an early manifestation of class warfare triggered by Fiesco's offense at Boccanegra's amorous relationship with his daughter. Boccanegra thinks that his stature in Fiesco's eyes will improve when he is elected Doge. Instead, it aggravates the antagonism and their personal relationship is reflected in an ongoing strain between commoners and nobles in the council chamber and the efforts of those, like Albiani, to rouse the rabble in the streets. Boccanegra is stern enough to recognize his enemies and deal with them, but he also recognizes that class antagonism is Genoa's greatest obstacle to effective government. The republic always seems on the brink of collapse until the personal reconciliation between Boccanegra and Fiesco culminates in Boccanegra's final decree as Doge: the appointment of the noble Gabriele Adorno, Boccanegra's son-in-law and Fiesco's grandson-in-law, as the next Doge. Boccanegra dies, but the republic survives far stronger than it had been under his administration.

The best way to make this work on the stage is to pace the plot slow enough to be absorbed but not so slow as to drag. Moshinsky understood this in terms of the staging demands, and Donald Runnicles took care of the rest in pacing the music. Needless to say, having singers with solid voices and acting skills committed to the strength of the characters being portrayed was also a great benefit. Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Boccanegra) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Fiesco) knew exactly how to deliver the intensity of the underlying αγών, while Barbara Frittoli (Amelia) and Marcus Haddock (Adorno) delivered the kind of romantic couple one always hopes for in an opera. Patrick Carfizzi was also particularly effective as Albiani. While Jago is vile at first sight, Albiani's capacity for malicious destruction is a cumulative one; and Carfizzi was particularly effective in portraying that accumulation from scene to scene.

One can appreciate why Simon Boccanegra is not the sort of opera one expects to find regularly in the repertoire, but productions like this make one wish it were performed more often.

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