Simon Boccanegra, Houston Grand Opera's season opener, isn't very well-known, even among opera fans. The first version, composed by Giuseppe Verdi in 1857, flopped. Loosely based on a play about a historical leader in 14th-century Genoa, it lacked the qualities that had made Verdi's Rigoletto and La Traviata smashes -- namely, soaring arias, central love themes and lots of action.
Even after Verdi emerged from retirement, in 1881, to rework the piece with composer Arrigo Boito, Simon Boccanegra basically languished outside of Italy. HGO hasn't even performed the work in 20 years, so it seems an odd choice to start the season with. Except for one thing: Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
The 44-year-old bari-hunk, the silver-maned heartthrob Elle magazine dubbed the "Elvis of Opera," wanted to do the role and he wanted to debut it in Houston. 'Nuff said.
Boccanegra is one of the great baritone roles; the music, like the dark plot of love and loyalty lost and found, is complex and layered. You won't leave the theater humming, but you will leave with an immense appreciation of Hvorostovsky's extraordinary talent.
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Boccanegra, a sea captain, has an out-of-wedlock child with his lover. His love's angry father, Fiesco, sequesters her, and Boccanegra spirits the infant away to a nurse. This all happens before the start of the opera. During a lengthy prologue, Boccanegra's "friend" Paolo convinces him to be elected Doge (head honcho) so he can win the hand of his love. Boccanegra proposes this arrangement to Fiesco, who agrees, provided he ponies up the illegitimate granddaughter. But alas, Boccanegra's love is already dead, as is the nurse, and the child has gone missing. Things look to be off to a pretty bad start. The only highlight is that Boccanegra is elected Doge.
Moving on. Paolo wants the hand of a wealthy young girl named Amelia. But Amelia loves Gabriele, and she explains her situation to Boccanegra. She also lets slip that she's adopted and -- guess what! -- was left at birth to a nurse who died. Boccanegra is overjoyed to find his long lost daughter and swears she can marry her true love. Paolo, on the other hand, is not so overjoyed.
There's a rousing scene in the senate chambers in which the Doge pushes for peace with Venice. The masses arrive with Amelia, who has escaped a kidnapping attempt that Gabriele believes was masterminded by Boccanegra. But language prevails over swordplay -- if you can call an opera a talky one, this is it -- and everyone agrees to get to the bottom of the kidnapping calmly.
Acts II and III move a lot faster. Paolo takes his revenge by poisoning Boccanegra and convincing Gabriele that Amelia is the Doge's mistress, causing Gabriele to try and stab him. But Amelia intervenes and explains their true relationship; they all make up. Then there's a failed peasant uprising, and Fiesco, who has been masquerading as someone named Andrea, reveals himself to Boccanegra. Fiesco learns that Amelia is his granddaughter, and they make up before Boccanegra expires.
So, to sum up, the reason you want to see this opera: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Even in the prologue, in which he dons some boring brown clothes and a brown wig, he steals the stage. Fast-forward 25 years and he's onstage with his own silver hair and Doge capes; he is striking to look at and a wonder to hear. He may not be the best baritone in the world, but he's right up there; and Houston audiences haven't seen him since his debut here in 2001.
Russian soprano Olga Guryakova is a lovely and warm-voiced Amelia in her first Houston appearance, and Italian tenor Marco Berti turns in a solid performance as her lover. American bass Raymond Aceto gives a dramatic and well-voiced interpretation as Fiesco/ Andrea in his debut in the role. And speaking of debuts, it was also Patrick Summers's first time to conduct Simon Boccanegra, which he did brilliantly, inspiring the orchestra and 74-member chorus to wondrous heights. Michael Yeargan uses simple but elegant columns for the sets, and costume designer Peter J. Hall keeps his colors mute, which is okay, as Hvorostovsky is pretty much the only eye candy needed here.
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