Amid all the criticisms of Opera Australia’s safe programming choices over the last few years, there have been some counterbalancing positives which deserve acknowledgement. The company’s reliance on the bankable Verdi, for instance, has happily not been limited to the obvious winners (Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, etc.), but has also spilled over into outings for works such as Forza del Destino and Don Carlos. With the exception of Luisa Miller, none of these were genuine rarities, but it was pleasurable to hear some less shop-worn fare, and to discover that they are often equal in quality to their more popular counterparts.

George Petean (Boccanegra) © Branco Gaica
George Petean (Boccanegra)
© Branco Gaica

The current production of the problematic but fascinating Simon Boccanegra is the most recent manifestation of this Verdian obsession. This opera languishes in mid-table in terms of frequency of production world-wide, although a few years back it received a big boost when Plácido Domingo took on the title role early in his conversion into a high baritone, leading to high-profile performances in Berlin, New York and London. One reason for its lesser popularity surely lies in the lack of romance in the main plot, with the Gabriele-Amelia relationship rightly subordinated to the political core of the opera. Still, a work which explores demagoguery, statecraft, Realpolitik and election fixing is surely particularly relevant in this election-and-referendum-dominated year.

One also has to forgive the melodramatic excesses of the plot: these include a long-lost daughter being restored to her father thanks to an extremely fortuitous conversation, said father being taken for a rival by the daughter’s lover (who naturally isn’t let in on the secret), an extremely chancy assassination strategy which takes one and a half acts to accomplish its goal, and more off-stage plotting, riots and battles than even Il trovatore. Improbable though the mechanics of the plot may be, they give rise to some genuinely exciting and moving set-pieces, including an epic central finale in the Council Chamber. Cognoscenti might also note the stylistic unevenness in the opera as it currently exists; the parts that were revised in the early 1880s (including the Council scene) strongly foreshadow Otello, whereas other sections still sound like middle-period Verdi. Small wonder that Verdi’s new collaborator, Arrigo Boito, described the work as a lopsided stool, almost impossible to get steady.

Adrian Tamburini (Pietro) and Warwick Fyfe (Paolo Albiani) © Branco Gaica
Adrian Tamburini (Pietro) and Warwick Fyfe (Paolo Albiani)
© Branco Gaica

The present production probably counts as a revival, since it is listed in the program as being ‘based on an original production by Moffatt Oxenbould’, the former director of Opera Australia who stood down in 1999. As in OA’s 2014 Otello production, a single set is used throughout, serving for both street scenes and palace interiors with very minimal adjustment of props. Nigel Leving’s lighting was unobtrusively effective in demarcating these different spaces. One challenge directors face is how to negotiate the 25-year time lapse between the Prologue and Act I proper: should there be a gap or not. In this case, Matthew Barclay went for a stylised swap over while the gorgeous dawn music introducing Amelia’s Act I aria was being played. The main protagonists from the Prologue turned their backs on us and were given new robes of office, before Amelia entered and was also helped into a coat, whereupon everyone else left the stage. While an awkward pause was thus avoided, a more imaginative solution might have been found, perhaps involving some video projection to suggest the passage of time.

The true excellence of this production lay in the cast, who were vocally superb and generally convincing in their acting. George Petean in the title role was absolutely outstanding: he possesses a powerful tone, and yet was flexible enough to be convincing whether he was facing down the treacherous Paolo, exchanging tender moments with his daughter, or being reconciled on his deathbed with his long-term enemy. The genuinely moving duet with the hitherto unbending Giacomo Prestia as Fiesco as the two put aside their enmity was the dramatic highpoint of the evening.

Natalie Aroyan (Amelia Grimaldi) and George Petean (Boccanegra) © Branco Gaica
Natalie Aroyan (Amelia Grimaldi) and George Petean (Boccanegra)
© Branco Gaica

The role of Gabriele Adorno may be less dramatically grateful (it’s all protestations and pouting), but Diego Torre relished the vocal opportunities that this one significant tenor part afforded him, sounding especially good in the mellifluous ‘Cielo pietoso’. Natalie Aroyan was drafted in late as Amelia Grimaldi, but one wouldn’t have known it from her assured stage presence and confident delivery, and her duet with Petean was particularly fine. Warwick Fyfe was strong as a coldly villainous Paolo, and there was good support from those in smaller roles, among whom Adrian Tamburini as Pietro deserves mention. Renato Palumbo ran a tight ship from the podium, with both pit and off-stage musicians well marshalled. The chorus was as reliable as ever, and the big eruptions in the Council Chamber scene were thrilling. This is definitely a production to catch – who knows when another opportunity will offer itself?