Keeping Philly on the map of grand opera

Festival O23: Opera Philadelphia presents Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra

3 minute read
Against a dramatic cloudy sky projection, Kelsey sings atop a small stone stairway, and Van Horn faces outward at right.
Quinn Kelsey as Simon Boccanegra with Christian Van Horn as Jacopo Fiesco in O23's 'Simon Boccanegra.' (Photo by Stephen Pisano.)

From the lilting pastorale of its orchestral introduction to the final funereal whisper of the opera’s close, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra envelops us in the full range of human emotions. There is war, there is peace; a lover dies, a child reunites with a father she has never known. Opera Philadelphia has captured it all. This new Festival O23 production keeps Philadelphia on the map as a major player in grand opera, one of the most complex and challenging of arts. There are two more performances (Friday, September 29, and Sunday, October 1), and they are not to be missed.

Set in the 14th century and based in part on historical fact, the plot is convoluted and opaque but provides an effective framework from which the opera evolves, and singers emote through acting as well as in voice. Boccanegra (Quinn Kelsey) is the doge of the Republic of Genoa, haunted by the death of his lover, Maria, and the disappearance of their child (also named Maria). Flash forward 25 years, and the daughter (renamed Amelia, played by Ana María Martínez) is the beloved ward of Boccanegra’s enemy, Fiesco (Christian Van Horn). Complications develop as Amelia falls in love with Gabriele Adorno (Richard Trey Smagur), and Boccanegra is slowly poisoned. However, enemies reconcile, Amelia and Adorno receive the doge’s blessing, and Boccanegra walks into the sunset with the original Maria’s ghost.

Spectacular singers

Simon Boccanegra is a bit of an oddity in that the opera’s namesake (sung by Kelsey, a baritone) has fewer juicy solos than a less prominent role (sung by Smagur, a tenor). Smagur commands the stage with a larger-than-life voice, thrilling to hear but still capable of nuanced modulations. At times, he could turn down the volume and let others play, as in the final trio, but we don’t go to the opera to be underwhelmed.

Kelsey is spectacular in the lead role, though Verdi makes him the restrained, wise counselor rather than a histrionic firebrand. Especially affecting are the scenes in which Kelsey and Van Horn, representing opposite poles morally and politically, face off, as in “Piango perche mi parla,” and put aside past differences (“Propizio giunge Andrea”). As Fiesco, Van Horn’s bass voice is consistently commanding, even in the deepest range, which he demonstrates with confidence and ease. The final scene, as Maria’s ghost leads Boccanegra into the dark distance of death, could easily spill over into smarminess, but instead is a moment of tender resolution, a mirror image of the conclusion of the film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Martínez is eloquent as the adult Maria/Amelia but has to fight off some powerful low voices and Smagur’s enormous sound to make herself heard. The one thing I craved in this production was to hear a powerful soprano cry piercing through the appropriately stentorian on-stage chorus, Smagur’s commanding tenor, and the bass/baritone cartel.

And speaking of low voices, in the role of Paolo, an enemy of Bocconegra, we also need to note the marvelous baritone and delightful actor Benjamin Taylor. Taylor’s Paolo—a schemer and deceiver if ever there was one—conveys a wiry, energetic presence, sleeker than his compatriots and more intensely driven.

A terrific production

In his debut with Opera Philadelphia, director Laurence Dale creates a brilliant operatic world for this production. Kudos to conductor Corrado Rovaris and the impeccable Opera Philadelphia orchestra and chorus (under chorus master Elizabeth Braden). The settings and costumes are timeless; the light seems to speak where voices are inadequate. Is it a coincidence that the rebelling peasants’ hats resemble the blue caps of Lenin’s proletariat? Either way, nice touch.

With a diverse cast and some of the best operatic singing around, this is a terrific production that lovers of all types of music will not want to miss.

What, When, Where

Simon Boccanegra. Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito; directed by Laurence Dale and conducted by Corrado Rovaris. $25-$275. Through October 1, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 732-8400 or


The performance is sung in Italian with English supertitles. The Academy of Music has wheelchair-accessible seating, seats near the stage for patrons with low vision or blindness, and assistive listening devices. There will be an audio-described performance of Simon Boccanegra on Friday, September 29. Opera Philadelphia also has Braille and large print programs available. ACCESS tickets are available.

Masks are optional.

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