Traditional Simon Boccanegra with Lush, Plush Staging

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Simon Boccanegra: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 27.6.2013 (CC)

Simon Boccanegra – Thomas Hampson
Jacopo Fiesco – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Amelia Grimaldi – Hibla Gerzmava
Gabriele Adorno – Russell Thomas
Paolo Albiani – Dmitri Platanias
Pietro – Jihoon Kim
Amelia’s Maideservant – Louise Armit
Captain – Lee Higginbottom

Director – Elijah Moshinsky
Set Designs – Michael Yeargan
Costume Designs – Peter J. Hall
Lighting Design – John Harrison

This Elijah Moshinsky production dates back to 1991; here it receives its sixth revival, no less. The staging is what could be broadly described as traditional, although luxurious is the word that springs most readily to mind. There is clever and effective use of perspective at the opening of Act 1 (the garden in the Grimaldi palace), where the stage is made to seem longer than it actually is via clever placement of columns. Walls bear different graffitis or Latin announcements concerning Boccanegra. The Council Chamber scene (Act 1 Scene 2) is certainly high on spectacle. This is lush, plush staging that seems to, in this instance, reflect the top-rank casting as well as to invoke images of Renaissance art. There is none of the contemporary corporate setting (or video trickery, for that matter) of ENO’s 2011 staging here.

One of the more complex of plots of Verdi operas, and encompassing both politics and love interests (themselves hopelessly convoluted), Simon Boccanegra requires, at heart, two things to succeed: a conductor who can pace it appropriately, and a stellar cast topped by a Boccanegra of the utmost integrity. The present cast and conductor fail to reach such exalted standards (just), but still deliver a powerful evening.

Pappano believes in flow in Verdi, clearly. Tempi were generally swift, and occasionally there was the impression that he would not let the music breathe for fear of losing his grip on the ongoing drama, particularly in the Prologue.

Recently heard at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the title role (see Seen & Heard’s review), Thomas Hampson’s Boccanegra here sings the role for the first time at Covent Garden. There was some air around his voice in the earlier stages, which righted itself in time, but there is no doubting his presence. His cry of “Figlia!” at the end of his Act 1 scene with Amelia was gorgeously floated, and truly heartfelt; but his “Plebe! Patrizi!” lacked something in dramatic weight. His stage presence was perhaps not as great as one might have imagined, although the moment at the end of the first act where he makes Paolo repeat the oath was a great coup de theatre. Paolo’s response (Dmitri Platanias, not quite at the top of his game throughout) was less convincing.

Fiesco has the first extended solo of the opera. Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto carries a world of experience with him. His prayer in the Prologue to Maria was not only intense, but notable also for its true attunement not only to character and situation, but for its resonance with true, great Verdi singing. Furlanetti sang this role at Covent Garden in 2008, and in 2010 (in two different productions); he sang Fiesco also in the recent Chicago Lyric production. In many ways, it was Furlanetto who was the steering force for this performance to attain and maintain its sense of the special; of particular note was his “Come un fantasma”, a masterclass in great Verdi assumption. The final act meeting of the two (heralded by an unaccompanied line delivered spectacularly by four absolutely unison horns) provided gripping theatre, Pappano allowing the music to speak while retaining that sense of flow.

Hilda Gerzmava, a member of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre in Moscow, impressed previously at the Garden as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in January 2012. Her sense of legato is impeccable, and her “Come in quest’ora bruna” was a model of Verdian singing. She is a true dramatic soprano. Something of a disappointment, at least early on, was American tenor Russell Thomas in the role of Gabriele Adorno, whose Act 1 Scene 1 duet with Amelia revealed some traces of strain. He seemed to grow into the performance, though, and his exposition of jealousy in the second act (“Sento avvampar nell’anima”) was the point at which he became properly convincing, revealing the lyricism he is capable of. It is interesting that he impressed me so much in the Donizetti Belisario at the Barbican last year (see review); one hopes the later performances in the run will find him in more consistent form.

Jihoon Kim, a Jette Parker Young Artist last espied by myself in the Tosca here in March 2012, emerged as a creditable Pietro; the smaller roles of Amelia’s Maidservant and Captain were performed well. The chorus, so important in this work, was on top form, adding dramatic weight to the Council Chamber scene, both onstage and off. This is a memorable cast, and Pappano’s take prevents any stagnation.

Colin Clarke