United Kingdom Verdi, Simon Boccanegra – Fulham Opera’s Young Artist Showcase: Soloists, chorus and reduced orchestra of Fulham Opera / Michael Thrift (conductor). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 18.3.2016. (JPr)
Verdi, Simon Boccanegra
Director: Fiona Williams
Lighting Designer: Andy Bird
Movement Director: Caitlin Fretwell Walsh
Orchestral Reduction: Benjamin Woodward
Simon Boccanegra (The Doge): Oliver Gibbs
Amelia: Hannah Macaulay
Gabriele Adorno: Roberto Abate
Fiesco: Simon Grange
Paolo: Chris Childs Santos
Pietro: James Schouten
Fulham Opera goes from strength to strength and repays a lengthy journey from deepest Essex to West London. I particularly remember the earliest days of a dingy church surrounded by scaffolding, the hassocks on the floor generating clouds of dust when you moved them … and a poorly tuned piano testing the ears. Now they have become experts at performing large scale works as ‘chamber operas’ with a remarkable ensemble of 12 musicians playing an excellent orchestral reduction – by Fulham Opera’s cofounder Benjamin Woodward – with fine singers and in a venue now entirely fit for purpose. They have been rewarded by an invitation to perform their remarkable Falstaff at Wilton’s Music Hall in May (review) – if you have never seen this increasingly popular company perform this is your chance.
Family – especially father-daughter relationships – and politics are two themes which recur time and again during Verdi’s operas and Simon Boccanegra is no exception. Particularly he supported a number of causes, and politically – because of his personal integrity and his works – he helped to inspire the Italians in their struggle for independence. As a result, he often faced the wrath of government censors. The historical fourteenth-century Simon Boccanegra was the first Doge of Genoa when it was competing with other Italian city-states for dominion over the trade routes. The sea is crucial as the background to the story and Verdi tells us as much in the score, most notably in its worthier 1881 revision than the 1857 original version. That had been a disaster for Verdi and more than twenty years later there was a second ‘world première’ at La Scala in Milan. With Piave his original librettist long dead, the composer turned to Arrigo Boito who would later help him create his masterpieces Otello and Falstaff. Boito realised the difficulties facing them both when he wrote ‘Our task, my Maestro, is arduous. The drama that we are working with is lopsided like a table that wobbles, but no one knows which leg is the cause, and whatever is done to steady it, it still wobbles. I don’t find in this drama a single character of which one can say: it’s sharply delineated! …’.
For me the Prologue (which Boito considered ‘truly beautiful’) drags but the addition of the exciting Council Chamber scene at the end of Act I does provide a more dramatic watershed to the work. The opera was only first put on at Covent Garden in 1965 and I think that before this current age of fascination with the early works of composers most opera lovers would probably have agreed with Boito’s ‘table that wobbles’ comment. Simon Boccanegra is much more frequently seen in the opera houses than – for example – Wagner’s 1842 Rienzi his own opera about a fourteenth-century Italian patriot and someone who is actually mentioned in Simon Boccanegra. Wagner wrote Rienzi in a conventional Meyerbeer-like idiom but there is little difference there to early Verdi and it remains a seriously neglected work.
For the 1881 version of Boccanegra there is no overture, something present in the earlier one. Instead there is a simple prelude with a theme that gently imitates the sea. Elsewhere the depiction of the sea is even clearer; at the opening of Act III the surging music – impressively realised by the small orchestra under Michael Thrift’s spirited baton – matches the psychological tension of the drama and Verdi will soon employ this duality again in his Otello. Rather gentler waves, sea breezes, and even birdcalls are heard at the opening of Act I which updates the story over two decades from the time of the Prologue to reveal what should be a palace garden with an outlook over the water. Here Amelia Grimaldi reflects on her love for the young patrician, Gabriele Adorno in a gorgeous evocation of nature. Later in Act III, when the dying Doge is in his palace reminiscing about the sea and his past triumphs, Verdi provides a suitably breezy musical accompaniment. There are other unusual aspects to this work, particularly for Verdi; a lack of any formal arias for Boccanegra, the rather insignificant role for the tenor and only one important female role. However, the heart of the opera is the additional Act I Scene 2 duet between Boccanegra and Amelia and that Council Chamber scene. Those moments have the drama, lyricism and tunefulness of mature Verdi; the rest I can take or leave.
This is very much an opera that depends on its five principal singers and here was the real strength of this Fulham Opera performance. It was advertised as showcasing three ‘Young Artists’ from the chorus in the leading roles of Fiesco, Amelia and Adorno, I doubt the singers in the other cast could have been better … and I overheard someone from the audience who had seen them say he could not choose who was best!
Fiona Williams’s intimate and inventive production with staged with minimal scenery ‘in the round’ with the singers in close contact with the engrossed audience. The costumes were updated to the twentieth century and Genoa seemed to have been replaced by the Sicilian world of BBC Four’s The Young Montalbano – a detective series which involves similarly-attired feuding Mafia families. Nerves seemed to afflict the young cast at the start and there were too many ‘semaphoring’ arm movements but everything seemed to relax as the opera progressed. Verdi’s treatise on ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – and how personal tragedies and unlikely twists of fate can exploit human weakness and explore genuine emotion – was allowed to unfold with minimal directorial interference. When Boccanegra slumped dying in the arms of his former enemies, Fiesco and Adorno, it was all very moving.
There was undoubtedly some very fine singing and the revelation for me was Oliver Gibbs’s Boccanegra. Not that this Fulham Opera stalwart has ever disappointed in the past, but I didn’t realise before that he was this good! He was by turns ardent, imperious, nostalgic and resigned to his fate. Gibbs excelled as much in the few quietly reflective, more paternal, moments as when being forcefully authoritative, such as in his appeal for peace and love during the Council Chamber scene. He also died with emotional effectiveness during the opera’s rather downbeat ending.
Oliver Gibbs is not a ‘young artist’ but what about them? Well there was not a weak link in the four remaining principal singers. Hannah Macaulay sang exquisitely and with great confidence throughout. She exhibited a flexible and bright tone and her inflected ‘pace’ at the end of the first act was perfect. It was also as unexpected – within the context of the music heard so far – as was Gibbs’s earlier sotto voce ‘Figlia!’ (‘Daughter!’) after Boccanegra’s reconciliation with his long-lost child. As the plebeians conspiring to overthrow the aristocracy, James Schouten suitably rallied the crowd as a fervent Pietro in the Prologue and Chris Childs Santos sang well as the conspiratorial Paolo Albiani: the latter’s incipient evil clearly marks him out as an Iago prototype. Boccanegra’s implacable nemesis, Fiesco, is the most fleshed-out and three-dimensional of the characters in this opera and was sung with impressive gravitas by Simon Grange. The young Australian tenor Roberto Abate has impressed me in the past and did so again here. Verdi makes Adorno a fairly one-dimensional character but Abate brought him to life more than some I have seen, through an exciting, passionate performance and by clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve. His voice has all the necessary Italianate lyricism but also a steely power that suggests he might consider singing some Wagner roles before he gets much older.
The musical preparation given to all the singers by Benjamin Woodward, Michael Thrift and their own coaches is to be commended. My final words go to Fulham Opera’s valiant chorus of seven – who were aided and abetted on stage and off by others not otherwise involved – and their committed enthusiastic contributions were mightily impressive and belied their tiny number.