Above all Simon Boccanegra is a political opera. The people of medieval Genoa, disenfranchised by the nobility, want a leader who understands them, a man of the people, Boccanegra. But his popularity is short lived, and his opponents plot against him, a theme of political rivalry and popular fickleness as relevant today as in the 19th century, or indeed the middle ages. Though one of Verdi’s less performed operas, it is also one of his most dramatic, and the Semperoper team bring it unforgettably to life.

Željko Lučić (Simon Boccanegra) © Matthias Creutziger
Željko Lučić (Simon Boccanegra)
© Matthias Creutziger

At the helm of this performance was Christian Thielemann, best known for his Strauss and Wagner, but bringing a wonderful sweep to this Italian masterpiece, uniting an extraordinary vocal lyricism with fiery orchestral drama. Both orchestra and singers performed for him with an unwavering commitment and passion drawing on a vast palette of colours, from the powerful declaration of hatred in the prologue to the visceral softness of the final act’s “Piango perché mi parla”, always maintaining perfect balance between orchestra and soloists.

The production, created by director Jan Philipp Gloger, though modern, is simple and doesn’t interfere with the action. There is no attempt to reinterpret the work of Verdi and Piave, just an honest presentation of it, visually stripped down to its essentials. The overall effect is minimalistic, with every alteration, however great or small, achieving a transformative effect. This presentation also creates a universalising effect, underlining the fact that these themes are timeless and global.

My one minor quibble is the dancers, who double the roles of the singers in an effort to support or clarify the action. The simple dramatic presentation here lays the plot bare, and these additions seem to muddy the water, asking far more questions than they answer.

Željko Lučić is certainly one of the best baritones working at the moment. So many singers do lyricism or raw power, but fail to combine them. Lučić not only offers dramatic climaxes and sensuous lines, but a vast array of colours, always matched to the action, a truly virtuoso performance. Kwangchul Youn impressed as Fiesco, with his incomparably deep yet projecting voice lending the character an extra gravitas. The number of bass and baritone roles in this opera can make the numerous ensemble numbers disintegrate, with the musical lines no longer clearly defined, but there was none of that here. Lučić and Youn along with Markus Marquardt and Andreas Bauer toed the line between blending and blurring perfectly creating clearly delineated textures with dramatic delivery.

Simon Boccanegra at Dresden Semperoper © Matthias Creutziger
Simon Boccanegra at Dresden Semperoper
© Matthias Creutziger

The lovers, Amelia (Maria Agresta) and Gabriele (Ramón Vargas) were vocally well matched, blending beautifully. I would have liked to hear more variety; there was dynamic range, but piano is a soft colour not just fewer decibels, and fortes can open as well as penetrate. However, there was genuine dramatic and vocal unity in this love affair, which made them enjoyable to watch.

With Christian Thielemann at the helm Dresden’s Semperoper is creating many musically and dramatically appealing new productions. Friday evenings performance was wonderful in all respects and makes an overwhelmingly convincing case for Simon Boccanegra’s position in the repertory. I can’t recommend it too highly.