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Performances

17 Nov 2018

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

Simon Boccanegra: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Simon Boccanegra

Photo credit: Clive Barda/ROH

 

But, once the incipient flickers got a sure grip on the dramatic wick, some terrific individual performances, which were both strong and subtle, brought Verdi’s tense, urgent drama vividly alight.

Although Boito later worked his magic on the Piave/Montanelli libretto of the first, failed 1857 Simon Boccanegra, even Verdi’s revised 1881 version has its dramatic short-comings and inconsistencies. Moshinksy’s production, now nearly thirty-years old and oft-revived, at Covent Garden and overseas, may be ‘traditional’ - the chorus blocking is rather uninspired, making both mob and ministers a rather faceless mass - but it brings clarity to the inherent improbabilities and coherence to the contradictions, despite the time-shift of twenty-five years between the Prologue and Scene 1.

It’s also a handsome production. The nefarious machinations of Paolo and Pietro, as they seek to overthrow the aristocracy and elect the former Corsair, Boccanegra, as Doge, are preceded by a vision of the rolling spume of the Ligurian sea, lending the scene a romantic detachment to add to the historical ‘distance’ of Renaissance setting. The colonnades and piazzas are imposing in expanse and weight, but simple in design, and beautifully lit by John Harrison. After the shadow-cloaked intrigues of the Prologue, the terrace upon which Amelia sits waiting for her beloved Adorno to arrive shines with a gentle sky-blue shimmer: with its vista of a calm, dawn-drenched ocean, it seems a spot where one might come upon Othello regaling Desdemona with a ‘travailous history’ she devours with greedy ear.

181112_0073 Hrachuhi Bassenz as Amelia Grimaldi.jpgHrachuhi Bassenz as Amelia Grimaldi. Photo credit: Clive Barda/ROH.

There is much to beguile, but on the first night of this revival run, which has been overseen by Moshinsky, initially things didn’t seem to gel. The singers are often set to the rear of the deep set and their voices occasionally seemed detached from the orchestral fabric, not exactly ‘all at sea’ but somehow floating along without ever really riding the waves. The Council Chamber scene was a visually arresting canvas of golden sceptres, silver swords and fiery red - the crimson robes and regalia of office, the heated blood of the baying plebeians - but, despite the intensity of the scene, which tightened like a sprung coil, the drama didn’t quite seem ‘real’.

The five male roles were vocally individualised, but the principals also need to work together, something that they struggled to achieve in Act 1. And, Hrachuhi Bassenz seemed uncomfortable in this Act, her voice sliding up to, or just under the note, and floating thereabouts but never quite settling into a true lyrical line - of the kind that would fulfil the dramatic requirements of the role. Though Bassenz’s tone was not harsh, it lacked a soft shimmer and was occasionally a little murky. The Armenian soprano was stronger in the ensembles, attacking the words and investing her interventions in the Council Chamber with both anxiety and anger.

181112_0323 Francesco Meli as Gabriele Adorno.jpgFrancesco Meli as Gabriele Adorno. Photo credit: Clive Barda/ROH.

The move from public domains to private dramas in Act 3, however, seemed to initiate fresh intensity and to inject the singing and playing with a passion which had authenticity and power. Francesco Meli got the ball rolling, his fervent ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima’ fuelling both his own jealous rage and the opera’s emotional thermometer. It also prompted a fairly sedate ROH audience, whose coughing and fidgeting had outweighed their attentiveness up until this point, to offer their first endorsing applause. Meli certainly conveyed Adorno’s hot-headedness, and the crests of his phrases were ardent and aching, but both his vocal volume and characterisation were a little unalleviated, and he didn’t fully convey Adorno’s divided and fluctuating allegiances.

It was left to the two men who are locked in a conflict which is both historical and haunting to reveal the opera’s real, human drama. As the man who comes from low beginnings to rule in Genoa for twenty-five years, Carlos Álvarez was following some ‘big names’ in this production, including Domingo in 2010 and Hampson in 2013 . He impressed immensely, using his warm tone and consistent focus to create a credible portrait of a man whom misfortune and misery, alongside the powers of public office, have made tyrannical, but who learns to forgive, shows magnanimity, and finds redemption.

Mark Rucker as Paolo, Carlos Álvarez as Boccanegra Clive Barda.jpgMark Rucker as Paolo, Carlos Álvarez as Boccanegra. Photo credit: Clive Barda/ROH.

The long scene in which Boccanegra discovers that Amelia is in fact Maria, his long-lost daughter, was beautifully structured, but it was Boccanegra’s framing confrontations with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Jacopo Fiesco that struck the most incisive emotional punch. The two men had equal dignity, might and majesty, ensuring that both their conflict and their conciliation were gripping. Furlanetto’s voice may not have the firmness of old, and some passages at the top were not as full-toned as one might wish. But, his diction was superb; and, the trembling depths of his bass in the Prologue’s ‘Il lacerate spirito’, when Fiesco learns that Maria has died, evoked the shuddering grief of a stricken heart with a power that resonated in my own.

181112_0432 Furlanetto as Fiesco, Rucker as Paolo.jpgFerruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Mark Rucker as Paolo Photo credit: Clive Barda/ROH.

Simon Shibambu sang with confidence and presence as Pietro, but Mark Rucker’s Paolo made less impact vocally. Under conductor Henrik Nánási the ROH Orchestra matched the darkness of the drama on stage, though I’d have liked rather more urgency in the opening scenes.

By the end, though, the chilling horror conjured by Boccanegra’s blood-curdling curse, ‘Sia maledetto’, had been both released with tremendous visceral force and tamed through real human compassion and reconciliation. Those political plotters currently planning coups and crises in another Palace just a bit further up the river might do well to take note.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra - Carlos Álvarez, Jacopo Fiesco - Ferruccio Furlanetto, Amelia Grimaldi - Hrachuhi Bassenz, Gabriele Adorno - Francesco Meli, Paolo Albiani - Mark Rucker, Pietro - Simon Shibambu, Amelia’s Maidservant - Dervla Ramsay, Captain - Simon Davies; Director - Elijah Moshinsky, Conductor - Henrik Nánási, Set designer - Michael Yeargan, Costume designer - Peter J. Hall, Lighting designer - John Harrison, Fight director - Philip d'Orléans, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Thursday 15th November 2018.

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