Verdi is King in Milan, and tonight's season-closing performance of Simon Boccanegra fired regally. In a case of neat circularity, La traviata opened this season (perhaps an act of appeasement towards those disgruntled by last year's Wagner-opener fiasco), though Boccanegra is a very different work to Traviata: dark, mysterious and steeped in the gloom that characterises the composer's later period. Plácido Domingo will lead the other half of this production's double cast, but tonight we were treated to the truer baritone of veteran Leo Nucci, whose performance in the role was something special.

Leo Nucci (Simon Boccanegra) © Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Leo Nucci (Simon Boccanegra)
© Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Like the medieval centre of modern-day Genoa, this darkly intriguing plot twists and turns in disorientating ways. Boccanegra discovers Maria dead, having already lost track of his illegitimate daughter, before the protagonist is unwillingly elevated to Doge at the hand of ally Paolo. Twenty-five years later, Amelia turns out to be Boccanegra's daughter, under the guardianship of political exile and enemy Fiesco (who now hides under the name of Andrea), but when the Doge marries off Amelia to Adorno, a twist in the story results in a jealous Paolo fatally poisoning Boccanegra. It's a plot as viscous as bitumen, and when the factional strife between plebeians and patricians is thrown into the mix, not to mention that between Guelphs and Ghibellines, we are glad that Federico Tiezzi's production works well to guide us through. 

Initially, we are thrust into rugged maritime Genoa, where silhouetted seafarers work on ropes against a twilight background. Period costumes set us in the medieval period, whilst modern flecks challenge us to make contemporary extrapolations.

Tiezzi's chain of five sets takes the long view, forming a visual arch that mirrors the rise and fall of Boccanegra. The grey of the opening scenes morphs into a sea of resplendent red and gold for the central Council Chamber scene, before returning to darkness for the Doge's eventual death. Wisely, the production teases out detail rather than adding layers of its own, so that when a line of women mourn the death of Maria, their despairing writhes highlight the shimmering melancholy of Verdi's score.

Carmen Giannattasio (Amelia) and Rámon Vargas (Gabriele Adorno) © Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Carmen Giannattasio (Amelia) and Rámon Vargas (Gabriele Adorno)
© Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Boccanegra was at his most commanding during the Council scene, where Nucci's portrayal of a frail leader had all of the rooted authority to part a sea of patricians braying for war against Venice, delivered here by the first-rate chorus with ear-snapping venom. Nucci, whose voice has acquired a delicious oakiness in maturity, is known for his studious preparation of roles, though we couldn't have hoped for such an awe-inspiring interpretation, which was less sung and more lived with every fibre of his being. His reconciliation with Amelia was a moment of breathtaking tension – the slow-burning recognition of his daughter, the moment we saw the penny drop, before the orchestra exploded into a long sweep of joy and uprooted trees descended to turn the grey set into a verdant paradise.

Musically, this was a quality performance, though not all of the individual casting was spot on. Carmen Giannattasio had the right purity of voice to portray the good as gold Amelia, but the towering Alexander Tsymbalyuk was wooden in delivery, despite looking the part as Fiesco. Ramón Vargas' Adorno was at times pedestrian with pantomime gestures, though a strong saving grace was singing that was communicative, clear as a bell and free but anchored up top. The biggest revelation was that of Vitaliy Bilyy's Paolo. His brazen baritone flooded the theatre, portraying abject horror when Paolo curses himself on command from Boccanegra with the words "Sia maledetto". Any risk of stalled momentum in lengthy dialogues was negated by Stefano Ranzani's orchestra, who were a taut, lean machine, always alive to sudden shifts in musical mood.

The Council Chamber scene © Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
The Council Chamber scene
© Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Music and visuals made a pleasingly natural fit in tonight's performance. Only at the very end did Tiezzi fall into the trap of choking the performance with too big an idea. As Simon dies, the stage rises to reveal a throng of mourners in Risorgimento-era garb. A mirror descends and turns towards the pit to reflect the orchestra to the audience. The imagery was incongruous and obscure, and it distracted from what might have otherwise been a moving passage. 

This was a small blemish in a performance that will nevertheless be remembered for its emotive impact. Moments before the mirror stunt, Boccanegra lay convulsing in his golden throne. The jagged staging vanished below before the set turned a deep blue. Boccanegra was isolated, but cradled in the arms of former nemesis Fiesco. It was a deeply powerful moment, and one of a number where Verdian drama shone at its most profound. Here was a performance fit for the Verdi faithful. It might even have won over a few disgruntled hearts.

****1