Simon Boccanegra, English Touring Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews
Simon Boccanegra, English Touring Opera
A consistent and cohesive production of Verdi's problem opera
Simon Boccanegra has, as English Touring Opera’s director James Conway points out, never quite made the running outside Italy amid Verdi’s output. It went through three to five different versions in a short space of time. Despite the Romeo and Juliet era setting (14th-century Genoa battling it out with Venice) there are naivetes in Piave and Boito’s plot which, despite the frenetic story’s many merits, generate more than the usual operatic implausibilities. These render some of the quickly changing political frummeries all but comic, so that Otello and Falstaff tend to make better running amid post-Don Carlo Verdi.
Conway has had a go at sharpening the opera’s dramatic and political intensity by relocating the action of Boccanegra to modern times (just as his Donizetti The Siege of Calais seeks affinities with wartime Stalingrad). This has merits, though Boccanegra’s dottier misunderstandings or non-recognitions seem even less plausible – even ludicrous - in an age of quick communications.
There is something Lear-like about Boccanegra’s dilemmas, and his failures
The era chosen is one of appalling Italian political violence – the period of Andreotti, Togliatti and the assassinated Aldo Moro; tensions between communist-socialist left and nearly neo-Fascist right; and the ruthless two-way slaughter by the Red Brigades and their rivals (Bologna station bombing, Moro’s maimed body found in a car boot).
As an evocation of that era, from the Jonathan Miller Rigoletto-like, Mafioso-style plottings of the opening scene, it does rather well. A major asset – some might disagree violently – is the immovable pillared set, with shades of Mussolini-type architecture, by the immensely gifted Faroese born set and costume designer Samal Blak, a Linbury-prize winner with a background in sculpture (it shows) and from Central St Martins.
Once Craig Smith’s Boccanegra, after a curiously unprepossessing prologue, becomes leader, he spends a lot of time stuck on a central placed curule chair, in which he finally expires, poisoned. The effect is static, almost monolithic. And I found it wholly apt, magisterial, impressive. There is something Lear-like about Boccanegra’s dilemmas, and his failures, and the grizzled Smith (unconvincingly young at the immediate postwar outset) has an isolated look - political, familial, emotional - which Conway strives to underline.
The fact that Smith has (unknowingly) lost, before the action starts, his wife or lover, daughter of his enemy (the always robust but now vocally magnificent Keel Watson) and then almost carelessly mislaid his baby daughter (the glorious Elizabeth Llewellyn, in a ghastly, ill-designed turquoise skirt that never changes and annoys at every turn - pictured above right), only underlines his comparable failure, or rocky efforts, to hold the creaking state, and its shifting allegiances, together.
The librettists spare us Shakespearian onstage battles – no Macbeth and Macduff: revolution breaks out and then simply concludes - so we never see Boccanegra with teeth bared, sword (or Kalashnikov) in hand. Smith remains a stern, angry but strangely placid leader, accepting his end (it’s a long death) a bit like Derek Jacobi’s Claudius swallowing the poisoned mushroom.
So this is a Boccanegra you will love or ridicule. A plonky prologue is redeemed by the magnificently cast Polish bass Piotr Lempa in a small(ish) role and the Australian-born Grant Doyle. Doyle is a number one performer, as Simon’s estranged former ally Paolo, who pays with his life for a collapsed coup. The opera picks up with Act I, and the story – Conway likens it to fairy tale or fable and is in many respects right – despite its twists and turns is no more complicated than Shakespeare.
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