Simon Boccanegra at English National Opera

Verdi, Simon Boccanegra : (Sung in English) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner. London Coliseum, 8.6.2011 (CC)

Simon Boccanegra- Bruno Caproni
Amelia – Rena Hams
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty
Jacopo Fiesco – Brindley Sherratt
Paolo Albiani – Roland Wood
Pietro – Mark Richardson
A Captain – David Newman
Amelia’s maid – Judith Douglas

Director/Set Designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov

Boccanegra is one of Verdi’s darkest scores. The plot, variously described as convoluted or, perhaps more kindly, complex, marries politics with tender love interest. The score needs careful handling, for we are a world away from the tunefulness, big aria-full operas of, say, Traviata or Trovatore. Actually, masterly handling was what it received under the baton of Edward Gardner. Rarely have I heard the orchestra play with such palpable concentration and, indeed, such accuracy. Throughout the prevailing musical darkness, Gardner managed to project the music’s internal, yet very audible, integrity. We felt, very clearly, that the issues here were very close to Verdi’s heart. The intensity in the final act was palpable, from the intensely dynamic opening through to the massively dark textures of the close. ENO’s Chorus was on its usual superb form throughout.

The director was Dmitri Tcherniakov, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Gergiev (at the Mariinsky) and Barenboim (at both the Berlin State Opera and at La Scala). He takes Boccanegra out of period (it is set in the fourteenth century; Tcherniakov’s Prologue takes place in the mid-1960’s, and the opera proper occurs firmly in the present day). The Prologue is in a sort of period (ie sixties) technicolour and visually it reminded me of the famous Miller production of Rigoletto (an ENO crowd pleaser if ever there was one), with its see-through bar to the left of the stage. The synopsis is projected as it is typed onto the stage before scenes (a useful idea in a plot such as this). Boccanegra enters in black leather jacket and checked shirt, set against the suited Fiesco of Brindley Sherratt. We have a Video Designer (Finn Ross, now an ENO regular) whose coup de théâtre is taking the set of the prologue onto the curtain and then minimising it (in front of our eyes) into a hanging picture on a wall in a minimally decorated house, some 40-50 years later. Like the divers in Pearl Fishers, it was certainly an effect that raised the eyebrows. The same scene was projected over later sets, telescoping time and creating an intriguing effect.

The opera proper is set in subdued colours, mainly blacks and greys and, later, in the anonymous setting of a corporate meeting room. The latter is a nice analogy – politics and back-stabbing is rife there, after all. But weapons referred to in the libretto are imagined

As Boccanegra, Bruno Caproni is a warm-voiced protagonist. His acting is on a significantly lower level than his voice, however, and I just don’t get his paper hat at the end. If intended as some sort of p(b)athetic coup, it is a miscalculation of the seriousness of Stockhausen’s tank in Donnerstag (which reduced the Royal Opera House’s audience to howls of derision in the 1980’s). Despite the stage antics, Caproni pulled the opera’s close off well.

Making her ENO debut was a Goth-like Rena Harms, who has recently completed tenure as a Domingo-Thornton Young Artist at the Los Angeles Opera. She took some time settling in: her opening aria (in Italian, “Come in quest’ora bruna”) seemed to find her searching for the lyrical without actually finding it – in contrast to Gardner’s finely honed contribution. The Gabriele, Peter Auty, was infinitely more natural in his phrasing, and all credit to him for toting his motocycle helmet around so doggedly as he sang. Nevertheless, Harms found her level after a while and stuck to it.

Actually it was the Fiesco of Brindley Sherratt that stole the show. His Prologue aria (“Il lacerato spirito”) was magnificently sung, and magnificently felt. Unfortunately, his final act “Come un fantasima” that lacked dramatic weight. Roland Wood and Mark Richardson, as Paolo and Pietro respectively, impressed in their vocal and dramatic projections.

A mixed evening, then, but one that begs to be seen and evaluated. Tcherniakov’s staging is deeply thought-provoking and stimulating.

Colin Clarke