If his operas weren't beautiful enough in themselves, there are two key reasons to see Verdi. The first is his role in Italian politics, advancing the cause of unification in the popular imagination – effectively creating an Italian national character which had scarcely existed among Italy's violently feuding city states (and, some would argue, only exists tenuously today). The second is his profound, and often tragically passionate, analysis of the bond between parent and child: a relationship which, in Verdi's own experience, brought shattering sorrow, as he watched his wife and children die early in life. Simon Boccanegra offers us both these key Verdi themes, vibrantly explored, in a single opera: and, sung with glorious musicality by a fine cast, there is no better chance to get really close to this extraordinary work than Fulham Opera's clear, dynamic production.

Simon Hannigan (Fiesco), Alberto Sousa (Gabriele), Oliver Gibbs (Boccanegra), Emily Blanch (Amelia) © Matthew Coughlan
Simon Hannigan (Fiesco), Alberto Sousa (Gabriele), Oliver Gibbs (Boccanegra), Emily Blanch (Amelia)
© Matthew Coughlan

The plot centres around the plebeian Simon Boccanegra's surprise election as Doge of Genoa, in the very moment that he discovers his beloved Maria (aristocratic daughter of the powerful Fieschi) has died, while their illegitimate daughter is already missing, and presumed permanently lost. His guilt, anger and ironic powerlessness in his personal life at the very moment he is given ultimate control of the city scars him deeply, and the foundations are laid for Verdi's masterly dissection of the problem of governing: "Even fresh water from the spring is bitter on the lips of one who rules," Boccanegra later muses.

Director Fiona Williams has chosen a 1980s gangster setting which suits the power-mongering plot well: in sharp suits and shellsuits, with glittering watches and flick knives, the rival political gangs huddle on the street corners of Genoa, plotting mercilessly against each other, and as we watch them in the round, we too feel implicated in the action. Maryna Gradnova's costumes are monochrome for the Prologue, then move into colour, helpfully denoting warring factions with blue and red, while Chris Beer's minimalist design concentrates our attention on a bare central playing space, between the flickering, dying neon sign over the fateful house of the Fieschi, and an opposing graffiti banner proclaiming support for Boccanegra.

Fulham Opera Chorus, Simon Grange (Pietro) and James Harrison (Paolo Albiani) © Matthew Coughlan
Fulham Opera Chorus, Simon Grange (Pietro) and James Harrison (Paolo Albiani)
© Matthew Coughlan

Boccanegra is himself at first an unknowing pawn in the plot of the evil Paolo to gain power, though by Scene 1, 20 years after the Prologue, the balance has shifted significantly. Paolo remains a trusted henchman, but Boccanegra is clearly making his own decisions these days, confident in his supreme position and moving with increasing conviction towards a desire for unilateral peace, steadily isolating himself from his violent companions. This gives Verdi a chance not only to cry out for unity, but also to mourn the brutal human cost of civil war, in rousing arias which must have felt bitterly relevant to his original audience, and still sting us today. Meanwhile, his lost daughter, Amelia, magically resurfaces, only to complicate the chain of vengeance by being in love with one of Boccanegra's many enemies, so that his responsibilities as Doge and father directly collide as Verdi builds towards his tragic, but spiritually transcendent, resolution.

The opera boasts a series of high-stakes musical duels between characters paired either by love or hate, and consequently relies on each successive pair of singers to conjure real dramatic tension, as well as powerful musicality, to give the sense of a huge story unfolding through the vendetta-driven decisions of individuals. With performance so literally close to the audience, the test of both singing and acting is extreme, and happily this cast are resolutely up to the challenge. 

Emily Blanch (Amelia) and Alberto Sousa (Gabriele) © Matthew Coughlan
Emily Blanch (Amelia) and Alberto Sousa (Gabriele)
© Matthew Coughlan

Oliver Gibbs' vivid baritone, with superb control and stamina, conveys both the cynical bitterness, and tender anguish, of Simon Boccanegra – a character who makes the greatest journeys in all of Verdi, from small-time pirate to enlightened leader of men, while tortured with self-doubt and guilt. James Harrison, with beautifully resonant tone, makes a suitably chilling job of the Machiavellian Paolo Albiani. Our young lovers are the biggest treat of all, with Alberto Sousa displaying astonishing power as Gabriele Adorno, his tenor both lyrical and plangent, in a performance shining with energy and confidence. Emily Blanch reminds us why Amelia is one of the great Verdi soprano roles, her voice easily filling St John's Church with Amelia's beautiful arias, underpinned by skilful acting and gesture.

Simon Grange's very pleasing bass makes a nice job of Pietro, the henchman's henchman. Simon Hannigan is not the most menacing Jacopo Fiesco I have seen, but certainly the most gentlemanly, emphasising the stiff aristocratic ethics which force this otherwise good old man into absolute cruelty. A Chorus (which mixes professional singers and members of the community) adds colour to street scenes, all conducted by Ben Woodward with one hand as he guides his skeleton orchestra with the other, which can't always match the vigour of the singing, but gives us a good sense of Verdi's score, from vicious chords to delicate sea-breeze melodies. This opera should be performed more: catch it while you can. 

****1