The air in London is rife with conspiracy, recrimination and infighting. But away from Westminster, political machinations and a baying mob are also at the heart of Simon Boccanegra, returning to the Royal Opera for the first time since 2013. The plot concerning the pirate-turned-politician can be a tangled one to decipher, especially with its 25-year gap between Prologue and Act 1, but Elijah Moshinsky’s handsome staging plays it straight – sometimes to the point of inertia – making the action easier to follow. Moshinsky has returned to direct this revival, which features two outstanding central performances.

Carlos Álvarez (Boccanegra) © ROH | Clive Barda
Carlos Álvarez (Boccanegra)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Verdi’s opera was long regarded as one for the connoisseurs, neglected even by some major houses. Times have changed. Giorgio Strehler’s 1976 La Scala production – which toured here – had a ripple effect and Boccanegra is now appreciated as a true masterpiece. The opera features two classic Verdian components: a father–daughter relationship; and the conflict between the weight of public office and personal desire. Boccanegra is elected Doge of Genoa against his will, but is haunted by grief, lamenting the death of his lover, daughter of his political rival, Jacopo Fiesco, and the disappearance of the child she bore him. In Act 1, he rediscovers his daughter who, as chance would have it, has been adopted by the exiled Fiesco, now going under the surname Grimaldi. A failed abduction attempt and civil unrest lead Boccanegra’s former henchman, Paolo, to turn against him. It is only during the Doge’s long, slow death from poisoning that the truth emerges and reconciliation is reached.

The Council Chamber © ROH | Clive Barda
The Council Chamber
© ROH | Clive Barda

The opera has its own special colour – or tinta – dominated, especially in the Prologue, by baritone and bass voices. When the Doge, suspecting Paolo is the culprit who abducted Amelia, forces him to publicly curse the kidnapper, he is accompanied by a lone, sinister bass clarinet. This darkness is reflected in Moshinsky’s staging which looks like a Renaissance painting, with stunning chiaroscuro lighting by John Harrison. The pillars of Michael Yeargan’s set give the illusion of perspective depth, while heavy costumes add to the sturdy look.

Ferruccio Furlanetto (Fiesco) and Mark Rucker (Paolo) © ROH | Clive Barda
Ferruccio Furlanetto (Fiesco) and Mark Rucker (Paolo)
© ROH | Clive Barda

It would be polite to call Moshinsky’s direction sturdy too. The chorus is a bit static, although the refreshed fight choreography (Philip d’Orleans) is welcome in the Council Chamber scene. Singers, though, are left to their own devices. This is no great problem for actors as consummate as Carlos Álvarez and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Sparks flew from their initial confrontation and their reconciliation as Boccanegra dies was truly touching. Both men were in terrific voice, the charcoal greys of Furlanetto’s robust bass vividly etched. Even allowing for illness which forced him to take a year out in 2010, it’s a mystery why Carlos Álvarez hasn’t sung here since his 2002 Rigoletto. His baritone is strong and dark, with enough bite to dominate the Council Chamber, but with a silky legato to bring a tear to the eye in his recognition with Hrachuhí Bassénz’s Amelia.

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Amelia) and Francesco Meli (Adorno) © ROH | Clive Barda
Hrachuhí Bassénz (Amelia) and Francesco Meli (Adorno)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Bassenz didn’t have the best of starts, her aria “Come in quest'ora bruna” unimaginatively coloured and lacking cream, but she hit her stride later on to deliver a pleasing Amelia. As Gabriele Adorno (Amelia’s lover), Francesco Meli curbed his natural inclination to oversing, with sensitive phrasing in duet. Both he and Bassenz occasionally looked in need of greater direction, though. Mark Rucker’s Paolo sounded disappointingly pale, but Simon Shibambu’s rugged Pietro impressed.

Although Henrik Nánási sometimes dragged his heels in the pit, the weighty sound he drew from the orchestra suits Moshinsky’s production. The Royal Opera Chorus made a great impact in the Council Chamber scene – the score’s great highlight. Its cries of “Sia maledetto!!” were enough to curdle the blood.

****1