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Monday 20 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra at the ENO

Simon Boccanegra

Not sure what the official Verdian party line is on this, but I find Simon Boccanegra to be Verdi's most musically satisfying score. Dramatically too, despite the complexity of the story, it delivers something quite unlike any other work of Verdi's. Overall it's probably my favourite of Verdi's operas. I'm not sure if this a quixotic choice. It's not thrilling in the obvious ways that Traviata or Othello are, but it has such gravitas and depth. The music is extremely beautiful, both harmonically and in the darkly glinting textures that Verdi conjures in his extraordinary orchestration, its steely glow supporting the predominantly low voices of the cast. Not much of the vocal writing is glamorous, but so much of the music is memorable, soulful and deeply affecting, despite it hardly being Verdi's most tuneful score. Amelia though is one of Verdi's most vocally grateful, if demanding lyric soprano roles.

Dmitri Tcherniakov is both the director and set designer of this production, which he has chosen to update to the 50s/60s for the prologue and then 80s minimalism (maybe?) for the opera main. After the shadows and bright lights of the prologue, the production sinks into a sea of cool grey and office furniture, evocative of nothing (except perhaps faceless bureaucracy). But this is a score painted in thunderous hues and subtly smoking shade, shot through with gently lapping colour and warmth, not drab, unrelenting battleship grey. It's not pleasant to watch, and presumably Tcherniakov is trying to focus on the human relationships between the characters, relying on the acting abilities of the singers to make the emotional impact that the opera can provide. Unfortunately, the acting is exceptionally hammy from virtually everyone so this approach falls flat on it's face, and indeed the further through the opera goes, the more static and boring it becomes; by the end, both singers and director seem to have given up entirely. Some things do stand out. Tcherniakov covers scene changes with a screen which shows text explaining the interceeding events - this opera is famously confusing, giving mercilessly few clues as to the complex machinations of the plot. So in a way this was welcome, but it happened so often, and usually took so long, that it became a bit laughable and indeed people started to giggle by the third or fourth time it happened. The main directorial touch that I found interesting was the freeze frame at the end of the prologue - the moment of crisis when Simon Boccanegra finds out about the death of his wife, and becomes the doge almost simultaneously. This for Tcherniakov is the defining point in Boccanegra's life and there are multiple flashbacks by way of projections and paintings of the event which occur at key moments throughout the opera. In the final scene for instance, Boccanegra seems to be wistfully looking at the painting before throwing it away in disgust - a nice idea, but here clumsily executed so that what could be a moving moment becomes another instance of scenery chewing. The scene where Amelia and Boccanegra meet is similarly devoid of emotion, the two of them simply stand facing each other, bellowing their lines. In the final reconcilliation, Boccanegra seems to just abdicate, again lessening the impact of this beautiful moment.

The singing I thought was OK though not at all helped by the translation which sounded completely antiquated and out of place in the modern context of the staging. I wish the ENO would stop this. Maybe I'll start a campaign. Bruno Caproni does not have a very pleasant voice, and actually all four of the low male roles were sung in that horrible "I can barely hear the note because the vibrato is so mechanical, metallic and wide" style that so many basses seem to favour. I don't understand why its acceptable. OK, so it wasn't that bad all the way through, but very often it was. The acting ranged from non existent to risible. This sounds like I'm panning it - I didn't hate it, it just wasn't emotionally engaging. Rena Harms is not an Amelia - this is a role that demands the control, beauty and warmth of a Te Kanawa or Fleming (ideally), and though that would be an extraordinary luxury at the ENO, one wonders about some of the ENO's casting decisions. The Cardiff Singer of the Year competition that reached its climax this weekend is surely proof enough that there are plenty of full lyrics out there who are talented enough and early enough in their careers to sing for the ENO. Anyway, rant aside, Rena Harms just doesnt have the requisite technique or basic timbral beauty for this part, and though she sang all the notes, it never sounded very easy for her. Mark Richardson looked embarassingly chubby in his skin tight biker leathers which he never seemed to step out of, but he tackled the part well, even if again, the acting let him down.

When will London see Boccanegra again? Domingos recent ROH performance was not at all to my taste - the voice has none of the shadowy gravitas that the role requires - age hasn't darkened the tenoral colour enough (though no one would seriously imagine that it would). I wonder who could do the part justice?

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