Simon Boccanegra was a resounding fiasco at the world premiere in 1857, for somewhat understandable reasons. The libretto is a very hard read, the action in the Prologue happens 25 years before the rest of the story, the plot becomes intricate and hard to follow, and it’s overall gloomy and bleak. The music, obviously, follows the story, and it’s often sad and melancholy; the lack of a properly Romantic love story and – perhaps more importantly – of catchy tunes, sealed its fate. In 1881 Verdi started reworking Boccanegra, based on a new version of the libretto by Arrigo Boito, who toned down some of the absurdities of the plot. Verdi was in the middle of Otello, at a crucial point of his career, but decided to take the time to tend to this opera which, as he famously said, he loved “as you love your hunchback child”.

Christian Gerhaher (Simon Boccanegra) and Jennifer Rowley (Amelia)
© Monika Rittershaus (2020)

This 1881 revision is the one most often performed in opera houses around the world, and it is also the version chosen by the Opernhaus Zurich. Andreas Homoki's production premiered a year ago, with only 50 people in the theatre, while the chorus and orchestra played in a rehearsal room, relayed to the theatre – a bold choice by the Opernhaus, which tried to keep its season going in the midst of the pandemic.

Homoki's direction suffered from the Covid restrictions which overshadowed the genesis of his production. The characters were always distant from each other and, in the many instances where the text implies physical intimacy, this was both alienating and surreal (“T’abbraccio!” and they are two metres apart!). Of course, it’s understandable that a production should take Covid into account, especially in December 2020, when it premiered. But the thought comes to mind whether a concert performance would not be preferable, especially so because Homoki's staging is not particularly inspiring. It features yet another revolving stage with numerous doors, and the singers constantly walking on the turning platform, opening and closing doors, like mice in a labyrinth. This did help frame the action as the result of destiny overwhelming each character, who had no choice in the matter and were unable to escape, but honestly, I started to feel dizzy after a while. The costumes were modern and in shades of grey (again), with only one red gown for the soprano (again!).

Nicholas Brownlee (Paolo) and Christof Fischesser (Fiesco)
© Monika Rittershaus (2020)

The chorus never appears on stage. Boccanegra is an opera of political intrigues. There are at least two violent riots happening in the city of Genoa during the opera, and we saw none of them; we only heard the chorus singing – beautifully – off-stage. There is a majestic scene where Boccanegra, Doge of Genoa, addresses the council on matters of war, defends himself against a popular revolt and points to his favourite courtier as a conspirator and kidnapper of damsels in distress. There was no council nor a popular revolt to be seen. The grandiosity of the finale primo was all for the music, not for the stage.

Luckily, the musical production was much more enjoyable. Marco Armiliato led the Philharmonia Zürich in a very energetic rendition, at times with a heavy hand. This was especially noticeable in the cavatina of the soprano “Come in quest’ora bruna”, where the orchestra “rolls”, imitating the waves of the sea. Here, the result was more a train running over the delicate, sweet rendition of Jennifer Rowley (Amelia). Globally, however, the orchestra was exciting and engaging, with sweeping phrasing and remarkable brass sound.

Jennifer Rowley (Amelia)
© Monika Rittershaus (2020)

Ludovic Tézier was announced as ailing, before the show, but his performance as Boccanegra was excellent. He did not seem afraid of high or low notes, of fortissimo or pianissimo, and, if he was careful in his delivery, we certainly didn’t notice. His warm, beautiful baritone travelled over his extraordinary legato for a masterful Verdian interpretation. He does tend to be a bit wooden on stage, but I would have forgiven him anything. The opera's finale, Boccanegra’s death, was rendered with great emotion and musical intelligence.

Jennifer Rowley’s soprano is perhaps a little too big for the role of Amelia, but her timbre was velvety and smooth, and her high notes secure and beautiful. Christof Fischesser was a commanding Fiesco, his intimidating bass exuding authority. His legato was not particularly Verdian, but his performance was remarkable.

Nicholas Brownlee sang Paolo Albani, the villain, with a strong, smooth baritone which took an appropriately hissing quality when suggesting criminal activities. Amelia’s lover, Gabriele Adorno, was Otar Jorjikia, his bold, youthful tenor secure in the high notes, full of squillo.