Christian Gerhaher illuminates Zurich’s rather grey Simon Boccanegra with its permitted audience of 70

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verdi, Simon Boccanegra: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Fabio Luisi (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich, 6.12.2020. (JR)

Christian Gerhaher (Simon Boccanegra) & Nicholas Brownless (Paolo Albiani)
(c) Monika Rittershaus

Production – Andreas Homoki
Costumes and set– Christian Schmidt
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus master – Janko Kastelic
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche

Simon Boccanegra – Christian Gerhaher
Maria Boccanegra (Amelia Grimaldi) -Jennifer Rowley
Jacopo Fiesco – Christof Fischesser
Gabriele Adorno – Otar Jorjikia
Paolo Albiani – Nicholas Brownlee
Pietro – Brent Michael Smith
Amelia’s maid – Siena Licht Miller
Captain – Savelii Andreev

After the first Covid-19 lockdown during late spring, opera houses in Switzerland entertained the reasonable hope that, unless there was a significant second wave, performances might, in the late autumn, return to somewhere near normal, so rehearsals for Simon Boccanegra commenced. It helped that production (Andreas Homoki) and conducting (Fabio Luisi) were in the hands of the local ‘powers that be’. When the second wave struck with somewhat of a vengeance, the Swiss Government were forced to reluctantly restrict audiences to a mere 50 lucky souls (plus a limited press contingent of 20). Zurich Opera took an unusual decision, namely to proceed with the first performance, have it streamed live on ARTE TV (and later shown on ARTE Concert) and invite the press into the performance. We were urged to applaud loudly, and were duly obedient. December performances have had to be cancelled, January performances are on hold and are looking unlikely as the authorities warn of a third wave after Christmas. Premières will continue, for the time being, to be rehearsed and broadcast in this fashion: otherwise there will be a dearth of revivals in forthcoming seasons.

A musical friend described to me Verdi’s opera as ‘very dark and brooding, without tunes to remember, and not therefore one he would flock to’. That, rather neatly, about sums it up. It was neglected for around 100 years, despite allegedly being one of Verdi’s favourites (although he himself described the work as ‘sad and desolate’); one can conjecture as to whether it was justly or unjustly neglected. Over recent years virtually every major opera house, tired of interminable La traviatas and Il trovatores, feels it should put it on.

Some past critics had seen the opera many times; and only by the end would they coyly admit that it was growing on them. Another described the opera as ‘one for the connoisseurs’, yet another even ‘a jewel’. One critic, however, was bored by the opera, adding that ‘even the most vibrant innovative staging and vocally untarnished cast’ could not save the work. Whilst others described the work as a dark masterpiece, yet admitted in the same breath that the work is problematic. There are some fine arias, but Verdi manages in this opera to miss creating any memorable tunes. Most of the attractive music is in the orchestra.

The opera is set in fourteenth-century Genoa, where the title character, a former pirate, is elected Doge, the ruler of the city state. He has a daughter, Maria, born out of a secret, illicit affair with Maria, the ill-fated daughter of Jacopo Fiesco, a proud member of an old, distinguished Genovese family. The mother dies and the daughter escapes the convent where she has been placed for safekeeping, but somehow finds haven (adoption) in Fiesco’s palatial household. Another twist, further adding to the confusion, is that twenty-five years later the Fiescos, now in exile, have changed their name to Grimaldi. There are two rivals for the beautiful young Amelia (actually Maria and named after her mother); the Doge is poisoned by Paolo, the loser in love and the political power struggle. The true identities and relationships between Amelia, her father and grandfather are finally revealed, all are reconciled (Amelia marries her beloved Gabriele Adorno), and the Doge succumbs to the poison as the opera ends. Without a printed programme (there will have to be one if live performances are allowed in January), it was hard to follow the action, even though Homoki introduced silent roles for Maria (Boccanegra’s beloved) and their little daughter.

Homoki has brought the action into periods before and after the First World War, though the furniture looked as though from the 1970s, some 25 years later.

Christian Schmidt has designed a revolving set made up of numerous tall grey doors, to represent the rooms of the Fiesco/Grimaldi palace and the Council Chamber. The characters wander through them and round them constantly; this can be tiresome. The protagonists wore aristocratic garments at first, then – after the elite had been removed, ordinary grey suits, only Amelia was allowed a little colour. It was all rather dull and gloomy, in keeping with the tone of the opera. Without a chorus on stage (just a few extras), focus was naturally on the individuals.

Vocally, there was much to admire. Christian Gerhaher, best known for Schubert Lieder and modern works, sings the role for the first time (his second Verdi role after Posa in Don Carlos). He is neither the loudest nor most Italianate Verdi baritone but he shades every phrase and is a consummate actor. His expressions of torment and grief were visible and palpable. Jennifer Rowley impressed greatly as Amelia, across the board: volume, strength, intonation, phrasing. I am a Christof Fischesser fan: for me he can do no wrong. Always a feast for the ears, his low notes were a thrill. The strong baritone of Nicholas Brownlee was often just too strong and monotonous. I thought the weakest link was the tenor, Otar Jorjikia from Georgia, not Italianate of sound, struggling with his upper register. Minor roles were all solidly taken.

Luisi conducted the orchestra from a rehearsal studio up the road and the sound was beamed in. He clearly admired the score, there are plenty of aural references to Verdi’s Requiem. The orchestra played extremely well; particularly striking were the various solo accompaniments from flute, harp and clarinet.

You can watch the performance on ARTE TV free of charge until 5th January 2021 (click here).

John Rhodes

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