Anybody who loves Italian Opera ought to feel indebted to Arrigo Boito. He was the librettist to Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra, Otello, and Falstaff. Boito also wrote two operas of his own: Mefistofele, and Nerone – the latter left unfinished by him after he passed on 1928. It was Arturo Toscanini who championed Boto’s Nerone, seeking opportunities to have it revived up until 1934, when the rise of Mussolini in Italy caused the Maestro to relocate to the United States. At that point, Nerone was largely neglected both in its native Italy and elsewhere, unjustly so for the opera about the Roman Emperor has much to commend it.
The completed four acts trace a chapter in the story of the presumably deranged Nero, including his declaring himself a god, and, more importantly, the rise of Christianity in the early decades of the Common Era.
In addition to Nerone, a role Boito conceived with tenor Enrico Caruso in mind, the other four key characters in the story are the manipulative Simon Mago (baritone), the Christian leader Fanuel (baritone), the ultimately heroic Asteria, and the secretly-Christian, Rubria – both sopranos.
For those familiar with Boito’s more frequently performed Mefistofele, Boito’s vocal writing in Nerone is also tailored to dramatic voices that can hold their own against a sizeable orchestra. The title role here is sung by the late Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas, a fine singer who abundantly delivers in vocal power and in committed acting. The wonderful Italian baritone Lucio Gallo makes a fine impression in a role that demands lung power and razor-sharp delivery. Bret Polegato’s lyric baritone holds its own in the role of Fanuel, favoring this fine singer’s penchant for nobility of utterance and subtlety in acting. Svetlana Aksenova is wonderful in the taxing role of Asteria, and Alessandra Volpe’s lyrical voice is perfectly suited to the role of Rubria, which she sings to perfection.
The staging is often confusing and not made clear by the lack of a libretto in the accompanying booklet, and it, along with the scenic and costume design makes one wonder what these crazy Romans playing billiards back in AD 54-68 – that, in addition to dressing in identical uni-sex outfits covered in blood.
Dirk Kaftan competently leads the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in this fine Unitel DVD recording, directed by Tiziano Mancini, of a 2021 Bregenz Festival.
Rafael de Acha © 2022