wed 22/05/2024

Simon Boccanegra, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - thrilling, magnificent exploration | reviews, news & interviews

Simon Boccanegra, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - thrilling, magnificent exploration

Simon Boccanegra, Hallé, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - thrilling, magnificent exploration

Verdi’s original version of the opera brought to exciting life

Eri Nakamura as Amelia with Mark Elder conducting the HalléAll images by David Hughes

If ever more evidence were needed of Sir Mark Elder’s untiring zest for exploration and love of the thrill of live opera performance, it was this ground-breaking collaborative event with Opera Rara – a performance coupled to a new studio recording of the original version of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

It was probably one of the greatest triumphs of Elder’s near quarter-century as musical director of the Hallé, with a mainly youthful cast, as perfectly suited to their roles as could be hoped for, singing superbly for him, the Chorus of Opera North and the Royal Northern College of Music Opera Chorus in full voice, the orchestra playing with intensity and idiomatic skill, and it received a deserved standing ovation at its close.

Roger Parker’s new critical edition of the 1857 Simon Boccanegra was published in 2021 – the first (although reconstructions have been made before) to use Verdi’s autograph score, which as he says gives us the first opportunity to see many of Verdi’s “richly detailed musical instructions”. Boccaegra ensembleWhen he revised the opera in 1881 with Arrigo Boito, Verdi replaced the original Act 1 finale with the rightly famous Council Chamber scene, along with other changes reflecting his later compositional style, and it has often been assumed that his second thoughts must inevitably be his better ones. One thing that’s apparent from hearing the first version in performance is that the weakness of the original lay more in its dramaturgy (by Francisco Maria Piave) than in the musical conception: there’s a carnival scene ending with six principals on stage with the chorus, but it doesn’t take the story anywhere in particular because Amelia (Boccanegra’s previously long-lost daughter) is asked to tell us what, at least in outline, we already know.

But Verdi throws everything at the scene, with thunderous detached chording, harps in furious arpeggios, accelerating pacing … musically, it’s an extraordinary achievement. Sir Mark was concerned to give this its just reward, with lighting effects over the upper part of the Bridgewater Hall’s platform, a wind and brass banda marching on to that high eminence to the chorus’s cries of “Viva Simon!” and a thrilling climax. It was greeted with roars of enthusiasm in the hall.

That wasn’t the first of the performance’s high spots. The Preludio itself was punched out with vehemence, and the contrasts of light and darkness, gentleness and massed effects, are as extreme as anything he ever wrote and begin to be felt from that moment. With five important male roles, four of them bass, bass-baritone or baritone, and one significant soprano character, the sound overall is predominantly dark and brooding, with flashes of shining light.

The style of the original Simon Boccanegra is in fact unique in Verdi’s development, moving boldly on from the languages of La Traviata and Il Trovatore to something closer to continuous music drama: there’s melody a-plenty, but few straightforward traditional arias. The one exception to that is Amelia’s clarinet-accompanied cavatina in Act 1, “Come in quest ’ora bruna”,  which becomes a swashbuckling duet with her lover and ends with a spectacular cabaletta – the last for soprano Verdi ever wrote. Scene from Halle BoccanegraAnd this is where one must pay tribute to the star qualities of this remarkable cast, beginning with Eri Nakamura as Amelia. She despatched that ending with fire and brilliance of rare quality and brought the house down. Her voice was heard here in Madama Butterfly two years ago and its exceptional lower-register warmth and high-range silkiness were heard again in this role – not just that, but her commitment to personifying her role was complete throughout … a real Verdian heroine. As Boccanegra himself, Argentinian baritone Germán Enrique Alcántara (pictured above) was equally adept at portraying his pirate-turned-statesman-and-devoted-father role in all its aspects, and his voice quality is rich and multi-faceted. Iván Ayón-Rivas was Gabriele Adorno, Amelia’s lover – an ardent tenor of superb timbre for a young hero and capable of expressing fury, passion and despair. William Thomas was Jacopo Fiesco, the character who most necessarily has to age in the 25-year gap between the Prologue and the rest of the action: he’s a young singer with a resonant bass and injected dignity into his contributions as the old man of the plotline.

Each of these was making his public role debut in this performance: they were joined by Sergio Vitale (Paolo Albiani), the most obvious baddie of the tale and with his experience well suited to it, and David Shipley as Pietro, who tends to function as his side-kick but has a vital part in the vocal tapestries as well as the story.

There has been an Opera Rara recording of the original version of Simon Boccanegra before (as reconstructed from then-available sources) – in 1976 with the BBC Concert Orchestra under Muir Mathieson, and the recording venue was that august palace of the arts, the Golders Green Hippodrome. This project, though, must surely put the piece back on the map in an entirely new way.

And though the plot of Simon Boccanegra is notoriously complicated and impossible to summarise, with a performance such as this it becomes clear that that was not the real reason for its only moderate success at the Fenice theatre in Venice in 1857 (Verdi, exaggerating, called it a “fiasco”). What was pushing the boundaries then can be seen as an exciting creation now … not the same as the 1881 revision with Boito, but a magnificent thing in its own right. 

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