Last night’s Covent Garden revival of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra was a study in time slips. On stage, there is the 25 year slip between the end of the prologue, when Simon is named Doge of Genoa, and the dramatic events of Act I. There is the 24 year gap between the disastrous première of the original opera and the triumph of the heavily revised 1881 version. Finally, there are the 22 years that have passed since the première of Elijah Moshinsky’s much travelled production.
As long as you’re happy with a straight rendering, Moshinsky’s staging wears its age well. Sumptuous period costumes are a marvel of detail, albeit so heavy that one might fear for the performers’ health on a hot night. Michael Yeargan’s sets make clever use of perspective lines and carefully shaped columns to give an illusion of great depth; it’s a clean, spacious look overall while giving plenty enough detail to engender a sense of realism. There’s much movement around stage, but here the direction falters: scenes of the crowd bursting in and the ensuing fighting are slightly leaden and there are annoying details, such as Simon drinking the fatal poison cup with his back to the audience, making an already difficult plot even harder to understand.
Two performers particularly caught my eyes and ears: one veteran and one novice. Ferruccio Furlanetto showed why he is one of the world’s most admired Verdian basses, exploring every corner of the character of Simon’s nemesis Jacopo Fiesco as he moves from despair to implacable vengeance to redemption; Furlanetto was always perfectly phrased and musical even in the most intense moments. Making his Royal Opera debut as Gabriele Adorno, Russell Thomas showed himself to be a dramatic tenor of the old school: a big man with a big voice that he throws around with abandon, generating real excitement as he hits the high notes hard but able to become more delicate in pianissimi.
I’m not 100% convinced that the title role is a perfect fit for Thomas Hampson. His voice is beautiful: strong, rich and velvety smooth throughout the range. But I didn’t feel that he really inhabited the character: he was at his best in the Act I cabaletta where he could simply give himself up to the music. Simon is supposed to be a tortured soul weighed down by the troubles of state: Hampson never quite made me believe. As his eventual murderer Paolo, Dimitri Platanias sang almost as powerfully and comprehensively outacted him. Nor was I convinced by Hibla Gerzmava’s Amelia: she mostly sang well with a pleasant voice in the midrange, but she wasn’t secure in some of her top notes and did little to lift what can be a rather colourless role.
The 1857 Simon Boccanegra was a critical success but an utter failure with the Venetian public. The 1881 revision by Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito played a major part in strengthening Simon’s character, adding the Act I Council Chamber scene, which was the highlight of this performance, brilliantly dramatic and establishing the relationships in a complex historical web. What’s striking about Simon Boccanegra is that it sounds and feels like 100% late Verdi, with dark, intense colours and music which gives a coherent artistic vision deeply integrated with the drama, in spite of the fact that large amounts of the material had been written so many years earlier. The 1857 version, one suspects, was rather ahead of its time.
The plot and characterisation of Simon Boccanegra are gripping and anything but conventional: the politics are intricate and believable, and the love interest is derailed by typical mediaeval family politics rather than a standard operatic love triangle. But it remains a difficult opera to follow. In common with Il Trovatore, also based on a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, huge amounts of important action happens before the curtain goes up and during the intervals. Unless you’ve studied the story carefully, you feel a need at the beginning of every act for one of those scrolling “story so far” panels from the movies (the Royal Opera limited themselves to a single “25 years later” surtitle at the beginning of Act I). One has to feel sympathy for the voice overheard in the interval saying “fabulous music, but I have no idea what’s going on”, and this is one opera where I have no hesitation about including plot spoilers in a review.
The music is indeed fabulous. Antonio Pappano conducted with a somewhat uncharacteristic level of restraint, but with much precision and tonal colour. It worked particularly well in those moments where dark tones and furtive conversations give way to all-out mayhem, enhancing the contrasts. And many of the highlights were truly memorable: the finale of the council chamber scene, the trio between Simon, Amelia and Adorno which closes Act II, the interplay between Simon and Fiesco ending in the redemption of both. This production may have its imperfections, but it has outstanding performances from Furlanetto, Thomas and Platanias. For Verdi fans, it’s not to be missed.