This Teatro di San Carlo revival of Sylvano Bussotti's 1979 staging, revamped in 2013, was of some visual impact, with period costumes and lavish scenes but, as disarrayed as the plot is, a smarter, more up-to-date direction would have been needed, as well as a more solid emotional centre to make it work. On the contrary, this production proves definitely Old School, with the sets showing Genoa's harbour and a constantly moving sea, while the singers simply stood still and sang.

Ambrogio Maestri (Simon Boccanegra) © Luciano Romano
Ambrogio Maestri (Simon Boccanegra)
© Luciano Romano

The story is rather convoluted, as it turns around the characters, but ultimately is incapable of flowing. The score may sound quite dark and moody, compared to Verdi's more popular works, with some great dramatic music in it, but no memorable tunes: no doubt, it is not one of Verdi’s most enthralling operas in the large public’s opinion. 

Its premiere in 1857 resulted in a fiasco, and Verdi himself was harsh, defining it as "cold and monotonous". The composer revised extensively it with librettist Arrigo Boito, to whom he compared Boccanegra to a rickety table... "but if we adjust a leg or two, I think it will stand". The opera premiered again in Milan in 1881 to great acclaim. It remained unappreciated and not an audience favourite though, until the La Scala staging in 1971 led to its renaissance. Many connoisseurs today regard it as a masterpiece. 

The intricate background of Amelia (Maria), ignorant that she is the daughter of Simon Boccanegra (the Doge), and granddaughter of Jacopo, Boccanegra's Patrician rival; the missing character of Amelia's mother; the 25 years that elapse between the prologue and the first act proper are all confusing even for the cleverest audience. Nonetheless this staging, with the limits previously indicated, had quite a neat narrative line, with a juxtaposition of scenes which allowed the viewer to distinguish (more or less…) the sense of the story.

<i>Simon Boccanegra</i>: Council Chamber scene © Luciano Romano
Simon Boccanegra: Council Chamber scene
© Luciano Romano

But, as every operagoer knows, the more a plot is muddled or a score is heavy, the more a first rate vocal cast is required to keep one’s attention alive and focused. Here the singers were experienced, but did not make a strong impression in general. Ambrogio Maestri, who was set to be the star of the night, did not have his most fortunate evening. There was no doubt his voice was there most of the time, a sturdy full lyric baritone and of good resonance; however, more than once, he either lacked the necessary hold on a note, or did not offer a musical characterization of the singing line in passages calling for more refined phrasing. Not to speak of some difficulties in the mezza voce, nonetheless his extraordinary stage presence carried him through.

Myrtò Papatanasiu (Amelia) and Saimir Pirgu (Gabriele Adorno) © Luciano Romano
Myrtò Papatanasiu (Amelia) and Saimir Pirgu (Gabriele Adorno)
© Luciano Romano

The greatest applause went to Saimir Pirgu, a passionate Gabriele, with a pretty clear, bright tenor, especially in the second act aria “Sento avvampar nell'anima”. Soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu was a very good Amelia, with stunning volume and note accuracy, never exceeding in vibrato. John Relyea, as Fiesco, drew a character of theatrical effectiveness. His timbre was very well suited in the dramatic second act, with the necessary warmth in tone and expressiveness. Gianfranco Montresor brought an impressive insight to his singingas the malicious Paolo Albiani.

Stefano Ranzani’s conducting did not overcome the  heaviness of the score, but at least he helped disguise it. He was able to keep the whole orchestra together and was extremely watchful over the rubato of some singers. As usual at the San Carlo, the string sections were better than the brass and wind and produced a rich, dense sound.