sat 22/06/2024

Simon Boccanegra, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Simon Boccanegra, Royal Opera

Simon Boccanegra, Royal Opera

Good vocal debuts, timeless revival classic, but hello, director?

Order, order: Amelia (Hibla Gerzmava) tries to calm Genoa's council, led by Boccanegra (Thomas Hampson, centre)Images © Clive Barda/Royal Opera House)

Revivals are for a conductor to show off some voices he’s discovered, do some role debuts, develop some careers, and as far as the production's concerned pour new wine into old bottles. There was some good new wine in this revival of Elijah Moshinsky's 22-year-old production. The Abkhazian soprano Hibla Gerzmava was the shining beauty, doing her first Amelia, with a sterling new tenor voice coming from the American Russell Thomas.

Thomas Hampson made his house debut in the role of pirate-turned-Doge Simon Boccanegra, and Dimitri Platanias - a previous Rigoletto in the house - debuted as his secret foe, Paolo Albiani. So all in all, a lot of first times out.

So where's a director when all these people need him? The stage still looks fine - Michael Yeargan’s airy columnar set, open to the sky, shows an elegantly spare marble interior of a Genoese palazzo - but there's a lot of space for the performers to animate, and the acting last night was mostly dreadful. The singers appear to have been pushed on stage and told to get on with it.

hampson boccanegraNo matter how good the singing, in this particular opera, with its limping plot, you sorely need direction to help the characters show the audience the taut personal relationships that Verdi is really interested in. The Prologue sets up feuds that will endure to the last scene: Boccanegra the dashing pirate voted in as Doge thanks to a kingmaker who will 25 years later turn against him, kidnap his daughter, and see to his poisoning. Meanwhile, Boccanegra will discover that his lost child is living under his nose in Genoa 25 years later.

The plot problems cascade in. All the exciting things happen off stage - premature death, murder, riot, abduction, execution - while on stage you only see people standing around. But it shouldn't be insoluble. In the absence of action, we have at the centre a father-and-daughter relationship, surrounded by the usual suspects: father’s bitter enemies, daughter’s lover and various plotters, which give rise to some stirring duets and trios, and the great council ensemble where dozens of male voices are capped with a single soaring soprano voice, that of Amelia.

Vocally the weight is all down with the males, a fleet of baritones especially. Hampson’s voice is too light for Boccanegra, I think, and last night he sounded notably strained, barking rather than colouring. Though he looks a dashing pirate-Doge (pictured above right), he evoked little sense of the insecure schemer with blood on his hands. He is rather too nice. He did bring real pathos with the last scenes, but I kept thinking that Platanias, a squat, powerful Paolo with more intensity to his voice, might make out a more arresting Boccanegra.

boccanegra adorno fiesco paoloAbove, Russell Thomas, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Dimitri Platanias

Rising above all (or perhaps under) was the mighty bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, whose torn feelings about his granddaughter Amelia and the father she loves but whom he hates, Boccanegra, leads to the splendid dual scene where Fiesco and a dying Boccanegra reconcile.

Furlanetto’s deep, oaken voice has acquired the crusts and cracks of antiquity, but he still wields it with great expressivity and ease in these sere veteran male roles that were Verdi’s gift to low voices. You follow his thoughts even when he’s silent - the mark of a great stage artist.

As Amelia’s lover Adorno, Russell Thomas has an outstandingly clean, stentorian tenor tone but an entirely robotic way of occupying the stage, and in the absence of having any idea how he should move around, he has some old-fashioned tenor ways of grabbing audience attention, decibels mostly. I have no idea why he thinks it works that he sings to his lover that she must lower her voice or people will hear, and then stands 20 ft away from her to belt out his passion at her, before approaching her with all the ardour of a Dalek. He can sing all right but he lacks nuance.

gerzmava hampson boccanegraAlthough Gerzmava also shows a preference for static acting, her voice does so much that it hardly matters. This is an unusually iridescent soprano voice for a Moscow girl (she's with the Stanislavsky), with luscious Italianate tone, full and velvety when she wants, of bell-like clarity in the high register, but also able to deploy a plangent vibrato. Her black hair and plain black dress in the council chamber cut a reproving, modest figure among the opulent reds and golds of the men, as did the feathery way she quietly gentled the combative males with the softest of high trills.

She’s the gleam in this cast, but so too is conductor Antonio Pappano, who launches the balmy Mediterranean stirrings of the overture with the same love with which he whips the singers into the emotional typhoons, beckoning orchestral details brightly into the drama, the happiest of captains urging on a slightly staid Verdi galleon.

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All the exciting things happen off stage while on stage you see people standing around


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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if ferruccio furlanetto is a bass-baritone then piero cappuccilli must have been a tenor... beata ignoranza!!!

He's hard to categorise - I remember him as Figaro & Don G, baritone roles, & he has that flexible upper range that 100% basses don't. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

with so many excellent Mediterranean baritones in the field, (the Paolo this time) why choose Hampson, who is pure Bostonian- a less likely corsair hard to imagine. Wasn't Moshinsky involved in the direction? he is brilliant with singers. I shall believe Pappano brings out the beauties in the score when I hear him next week - can he rival Solti or Abbado.? But I would cross the ocean to hear - and watch- Furlanetto.

Hibla Gerzmava is Abkhazian, not Russian.

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