Verdi's Simon Boccanegra explores how the characters of powerful men change (or don't) with age and fortune: the action happens over several decades, and the character of Simon gives wonderful scope for some serious character acting. As with Il Trovatore, also based on a play by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez, large amounts of the key action happens off-stage either before the opera starts or in the intervals, which can make the plot extremely difficult to understand.

Bruno Caproni as Simon Boccanegra, © Mike Hoban
Bruno Caproni as Simon Boccanegra,
© Mike Hoban

For ENO's new production, director Dmitri Tcherniakov takes a direct approach to the problem: before the overture even starts, we are treated to a teleprinter-style few paragraphs displayed on a giant screen telling us the story so far, with equivalents at the breaks between acts. It's simple and thoroughly effective, as were several of the production details. For the prologue, we are in 1940s America, in a set taken straight out of Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks - a glass sided cafe at the triangular apex of a block in the mean streets (knowingly labelled "Fiesco Square" after our hero's nemesis), accompanied by a black limousine that marks the period firmly in time. When the time slips twenty-five years after the Prologue, the costumes have changed period, the characters have aged and the lights are brighter, but the Nighthawks image keeps returning: there's an awesome effect from video designer Finn Ross in which our leading lady Amelia literally steps into the story, which contracts around her until it merges into a painting on the wall.

In spite of several good things, the production failed to convince me. Simon Boccanegra has a strong narrative about mediaeval historical events involving clear distinction between nobility and commoners and a lot of weapons flying around. In this version, after the prologue, we're basically watching men in grey suits in a conference room. Apart from Amelia (the only female role) and her lover Gabriele Adorno, splendidly emblazoned in black and white leather biker suit, the uniformity of costumes seemed to me to confuse and dilute the story rather than to make it modern and relevant, as did several production details (why are the car's hazard lights permanently flashing, and why does Simon put a paper boat on his head before dying?) And while the characters were clearly trying to interact (there was obvious intent to avoid the "stand and deliver" style of opera singing), the body language on stage didn't make me believe, not least some horrendous overacting by Roland Wood as the villainous traitor Paolo.

I've generally been a great admirer of Edward Gardner, but with the exception of the splendid Act I close as Simon confronts Paolo, I felt that the orchestra lacked bite. But the most important thing in Simon Boccanegra is the development of character expressed through the singing, and this came through strongly. Brindley Sherratt was outstanding as the patrician Fiesco, who spends a life of bitterness and hatred which is only dispelled at the very end of the opera, when it is too late and Simon is dying. Sherratt portrayed the man's power, overarching pride and bitterness with great authority and great musicality, equally at home in the high tessitura passages as in the striking low notes. In the title role, Bruno Caproni sang pleasantly and did a good job of presenting Simon's complexity and character changes, but his voice lacked the air of command needed to really make the audience sit up and listen. Rena Harms, making her ENO debut as Amelia/Maria, was a little uncertain in her early arias, but soon warmed up and will be pleased with her performance. The part of Gabriele Adorno isn't one of Verdi's most prominent or inspired tenor roles, but Peter Auty sang it well enough. Chorus numbers were strong, and several of the duet scenes were outstanding, especially the confrontations between Simon and Fiesco and the father-daughter moments between Simon and Amelia.

I love the opera and much enjoyed the evening, but didn't feel quite on Tcherniakov and Gardner's wavelength. It all adds up to a production that's excellent in parts but doesn't get close enough to the perfect whole.