Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Tomowa-Sintow, Milnes, Moldoveanu, Plishka; Metropolitan Opera/Levine (DG 0734403)

8th April 2008 3.5 stars

Simon Boccanegra Deutsche Grammophon's catalogue of DVDs of broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera continues with this 1984 performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It has plenty going for it, but at the same time offers no serious competition to Decca's fairly recently released DVD of the 1994 Covent Garden version under Solti, which boasts a more consistent cast and one of Elijah Moshinsky's best productions.

Nevertheless, the power of Sherrill Milnes in the title role, Anna Tomowa-Sintow's excellent singing as Amelia Grimaldi and James Levine's visceral conducting make this an attractive offering. Milnes has the occasional intonation problem, but the interpretation is riveting. Although there's not much of a physical transformation between the Prologue (set two decades earlier than the rest) and the first act, the psychological difference is clearly depicted. Having left behind his past as a corsair, Milnes' Boccanegra is now a responsible and compassionate Doge. As should be the case, the opera revolves around him, both in terms of the private relationships and the public ceremonies. The Council Chamber Scene is particularly arresting, when Milnes flings his enemies from him with considerable physicality. I also admire the singing of the latter stages of the drama, when Boccanegra has poisoned: one can hear the fact that his health is failing in the fractured vocal line, something which Milnes accentuates. The Amelia-Boccanegra relationship provides the heart of the performance, however. The recognition duet and all the subsequent scenes between these two characters find this performance at its best.

That's also partly because of the magnificent singing of Anna Tomowa-Sintow – in my opinion a hugely underrated singer – as Amelia. The purer tone and more youthful appearance of Kiri Te Kanawa on the ROH set are more appropriate for the character of Amelia, but I find it impossible to resist the power of Tomowa-Sintow's singing. Her performance is not about delivering 'Come in quest'ora bruna' and so on smoothly, but rather about conveying the passion of the character. When she joins forces with Milnes, the results are exciting; I especially like the way she punches out her lines in the Council Chamber Scene so forcefully.

The only problem is that nobody else in the cast is on the same level as these two. I find Romanian tenor Vasile Moldoveanu rather provincial in quality, both in terms of his vocal finesse and especially his acting ability, which is minimal. Paul Plishka is a sturdy Fiesco but lacks the sonorous quality of Robert Lloyd in his prime in this role, though his acting is affecting. Richard J Clark is reliable as Paolo, and a young Dawn Upshaw pops up briefly as Un'ancella di Amelia, but the Covent Garden casting of most of these roles is preferable. Similarly, Tito Capobianco's re-direction of a production originally designed for Chicago Lyric Opera by Pier Luigi Pizzi is little more than efficient: the Council Chamber Scene looks magnificent but the other scenes look dim (not helped by the grainy picture quality that dogs most of the old Met broadcasts) and the direction of the soloists is sometimes non-existent.

Levine paces the score brilliantly in the pit, however, and the performance is never less than engaging because of the excellent playing of the orchestra. The subtlety of the strings in the Prelude and the consistently high standard of brass playing from start to finish are strong points of a vocally uneven performance. For my money, the Te Kanawa-Solti-Moshinsky combination is preferable, but Boccanegra is such a riveting example of Verdi's art that another recording is always welcome, and Milnes fans will be delighted.

By Dominic McHugh