'Simon Boccanegra' says: Applaud politely

There is a hard-fought election campaign, an unwed teenage pregnancy in the family of a candidate, general denunciation of the ruler to be replaced … and then there is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi taking it all in, watching, not doing anything about it.
Pelosi was in the here-and-now Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House for the gala opening of the San Francisco Opera’s 86th season. The rest of the story unfolded in 14th-century Genoa via Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” a love-and-hate-and-politics saga set to music.

Opera is such an impossible business: You get a hundred things right, and then there is one deal-breaker and you’re left with appreciation for the good things, but quite without the excitement, the thrill you get when opera fires on all cylinders.

Friday night had some choice stuff, especially Music Director Donald Runnicles conducting a smooth, well-balanced, consistent performance, in his 18th — and last — season opener before yielding the baton to Nicola Luisotti in 2009. There is a fine cast, and Michael Yeargan’s simple but impressive sets. So what ain’t we got? The rhythmic excitement, the great sweeping melodies, the overall enchantment of other Verdi operas.

Even this revised 1881 version — with the participation of Arrigo Boito, who had helped to make Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff” the brilliant masterpieces that they are — cannot overcome the problems inherent in the 1857 original, received poorly and characterized by the composer himself as something he had hoped would be “passable … but I was mistaken.”

Of course, there are fans of “Boccanegra” (else how would it get the leadoff position for the season?), and at the three-hour Friday gala, they mostly applauded politely, saving a mild ovation for after the tearjerker final scene.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the title role beautifully, in a surprisingly authentic Italianate manner. He came up short in his — and the opera’s — best aria, “Plebe! Patrizi!” pleading for peace; the power that is inherent in the music and words was not quite there. His final scene, even in the midst of a melodrama that goes on too thick and too long, was musically and dramatically moving.

Patrick Carfizzi, small in stature, has a big voice and presence; his evil Paolo reached heights worthy of Iago. Marcus Haddock — Gabriele Adorno, the tenor hero — has a young voice, an impressive one, and with more heft, he might be rising to heights in the operatic firmament.

Vitalij Kowaljow’s Fiesco shows up only at the beginning and the end, unfortunately — one would like to have the bass stand and deliver more; an excellent voice, outstanding musician.

Hearing is not always believing, and in case of the lead soprano role, Barbara Frittoli made a company debut that satisfied the ears, mostly, but did not move the rest of the listener. It might have been just the opening night (and the debut), but the performance was musically not convincing, as she was hitting the right notes, without creating a sense of security that this would go on consistently.

David Edwards’ stage direction is simple to a fault, probably contributing to frequent bouts of ennui, between occasional high points of the music.

If you go

San Francisco Opera’s “Simon Boccanegra,” by Giuseppe Verdi

Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
When: Tuesday and Sept. 17, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 21 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $260
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

Free opera in the park

Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Barbara Frittoli, previously scheduled, will not participate in the traditional free concert during the San Francisco Opera's opening weekend, but Vitalij Kowaljow and Marcus Haddock from “Simon Boccanegra” will be there, along with a half dozen other singers, the entire Opera Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles. General Director David Gockley is MC. That's Sunday, at 1:30 p.m., in Golden Gate Park's Sharon Meadow; better get there early as several thousand opera fans will be vying for a patch of grass.

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