Simon Boccanegra

Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2011)

Simon Boccanegra production photo

Some of them work - others don't. I refer to modern, updated, accounts of traditional, often well-loved works in the operatic repertoire.

Miller's fresh account of Rigolleto was brilliant, even when I saw his revival for the first time only a few months ago. In 1980, Joseph Papp's scintillating account of The Pirates of Penzance won a new young audience for Gilbert and Sullivan. Having been so won over at Drury Lane, I took two Germans to see it in Manchester and they were transfixed.

Simon Boccanegra, Verdi's touching, relatively seldom seen masterpiece revived in Dmitri Tcherniakov's new production, promised to be among the events of the year at The Coliseum.

Alas, apart from the dramatic opening prologue in which the Mafiosi are found crowded into a bar, their dark limousines parked, lights flashing, outside, there is little that truly matches Verdi's splendid (as usual) score.

The music, in keeping with the mood, is wonderfully black and sinister, telling a story of underground plots and schemes. It is, after all, the tale of a power struggle between patricians and plebeians. Paolo (baritone Roland Wood) is persuading Pietro (bass-baritone Mark Richardson) to switch candidates for city ruler to his friend Boccanegra who arrives in town to the acclaim of his public.

The great duet in this section is between Boccanegra, here the excellent Verdi baritone Bruno Caproni, Ulster-born with a litany of international singing roles to his credit, and Fiesco, the distinguished bass Brindley Sherratt. In one of their two great duets, the pair argue over the child, daughter to one, grand daughter to the other. Score and orchestra, delicately controlled by Edward Gardner, are superb throughout and rarely more than at this point.

Act 1 introduces the silver-voiced American Rena Harms as Amelia and while she thrives in the garden scene "See how the sky and ocean" her tone seems less secure in later stages. Possibly as the result of the appearance of her lover Gabriele, the otherwise excellent tenor Peter Auty, in biking leathers.

Nor does reference to secret passages seem very appropriate in what resembles more a post-war St Petersburg estate rather than an important Italian municipal HQ!

I am not sure that the large titles printed across the stage are of any real help as, with the loss of period structural atmosphere - and Tcherniakov is responsible for design as well as direction, we lose also our dramatic bearings. And there is a puzzling switching of the computerised scenes in the third act which certainly added to my confusion.

Happily Gardner, his instrumental forces and soloists, as well as the stirring chorus under Martin Merry, are made of sterner stuff and appear largely immune to such dramatic apostasy. Even the greater than usual complexity of the plot fails to dampen their musical ardour.

Just as well, for director Tcherniakov, the Russian with almost as many consonants as an Arsenal goalkeeper, does not, for all his renown, make it easy for the rest of us. And while the score is rich with emotion, there is, unusually for Verdi, not a memorable tune for us to sing on the train home.

"Simon Boccanegra" can be seen at The Coliseum on Thursday 16th, Saturday 18th , Wed 22nd, Tues 28th June, Sat 2nd July (6.30), Tues 5th Thurs 7th and Sat 9th (6.30). Curtain up at 7.30 unless otherwise stated.

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Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole