"Less is more" was Coco Chanel's iconic, pragmatic adage to steer elegant fashionistas away from extraneous accessories, but in the case of an austere, light-handed Simon Boccanegra production that opened Teatro Carlo Felice’s new season, a heavier touch would have fared better in presenting Guiseppe Verdi's Liguria-set masterpiece about the eponymous 14th century Doge of Genoa. Presented in its 1881 definitive version, Verdi’s gloomy drama was tweaked and modified by Arrigo Boito from its 1857 incantation by Franceso Maria Piave, both versions inspired by Antonio García Gutiérrez’s Simón Bocanegra.

© Marcello Orselli
© Marcello Orselli

In a production signed by Andrea De Rosa, in addition to opening Teatro Carlo Felice’s 2015-16 season, it had opened Teatro La Fenice’s last season as a co-production partner. In Genoa, humidity-proof finery and modest, cobblestone-safe heels greeted the city's 19th century opera house in the grand De Ferrari piazza, attended by various city organs and carabinieri corps in liquid-polished helmets.

Under De Rosa, the pragmatic, austere production was a neo-modern pastiche of slick black floors, video projection backdrops and monolithic scenery anchored by antique costumes and props that vaguely hinted at Boito’s historical epoch. At the stage back, Pasquale Mari's hyper-realistic video projection revealed a Liguria seascape backdrop of polite, calm weather. Hours shifted from dawn to dusk over a glistening, tame sea. At the front, a central box variegated dimensions and finishes to represent interiors and exteriors such as Act II's Doge's Council Chamber, upholstered in rich, oxblood jacquard or the prologue’s paneled, black box with sliding windows that revealed Maria’s corpse in Fiesco’s palace.

De Rosa had mentioned in press clippings that the key element of his production was an exultation of the sea. Understandable, as Boccanegra’s narrative is set against Genoa when it was a powerful, maritime republic that dominated the Mediterranean, ships tattooed in blood and fire. Here, there were no romantic, atmospheric fogs or star-wreathed skies. Weather felt too declawed, manicured, manipulated, tranquil and sun-kissed to underline the vagaries of political strife, marine muscle and medieval stone of Boccanegra’s epoch.

Barbara Frittoli (Amelia) and Franco Vassallo (Boccanegra) © Marcello Orselli
Barbara Frittoli (Amelia) and Franco Vassallo (Boccanegra)
© Marcello Orselli

On lighting, De Rosa's chiaroscuro casts were effective, such as the first act's seventh scene. The Teatro Carlo Felice chorus – precise, unified and powerful under chorus master Pablo Assante – went from whisper to roar in "Sia Maledetto!", faces stamped in light against a blacked-out background, Paolo and Pietro crouched in repentance.

Medieval Genoa robes and mantles by Alessandro Lai – which swept ankles in browns and khakis over soft-construction, flat boots and leather gloves – were without crusts of sweat or stains or dirt, sanitized plebeians and patricians with groomed hair and trimmed beards.

On the podium, compartmentalized music-making by maestro Stefano Ranzani and the Teatro Carlo Felice Orchestra made easy work of Verdi's score in respectful, balanced tempi and excellent synthetics woven in harmonious warp and weft. Cottony and ashy, what it lacked in dark shading, turbulence, density and smoke was made up in melancholy melodies.

Genoa's first Doge was sung by Franco Vassallo. From the compact, harmonious "Suona ogni labbro il mio nome" to the fiery "O Inferno", he brought a plummy-shaded baritone with studious phrasing, emission and projection. He effectively matured from the lightweight corsair to the stormy doge with a sympathetic humanity beneath the tempest, which elicited a stirring "Orfanella il tetto umile…Figlia!" reunion. At his side, Luisa Baldinetti's mime Maria ghost haunted his memories in a white nightgown. As he laid dying in her arms, the couple affected a Michelangelo's Pietà embrace.

Barbara Frittoli (Amelia) and Gianluca Terranova (Gabriele) © Marcello Orselli
Barbara Frittoli (Amelia) and Gianluca Terranova (Gabriele)
© Marcello Orselli

Barbara Frittoli created a strong-willed yet delicate Amelia. A creamy middle anchored effortless highs such as a modulated and gentle “Come in quest'ora bruna". She commanded secure, mature stage language in periwinkle-toned, toe-sweeping robes. Marco Spotti's authoritative, grave and honorable Fiesco excelled in colorful, rich registers. He sung the prologue’s "Il lacerato spirito” from the floor, collapsed in grief and bitter tears.

Gianluca Terranova's Gabriele brought a smooth, polished, elegant center over a timbered, dense middle voice, and sensitive phrasing gave an endearing humanity. Gianfranco Montresor's incisive and carved baritone created a compelling Paolo against John Paul Huckle's naturalistic, brooding Pietro.

De Rosa excelled at staying faithful to the libretto, but little else was left to distinguish the city of its inception. The Genoa-set drama has great capacity to evoke a Liguria billet-doux, but there was little enchantment or poetry.