A consistently ominous atmosphere is wonderfully sustained in Vienna State Opera’s Simon Boccanegra

AustriaAustria Verdi, Simon Boccanegra: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Vienna State Opera, Vienna, 6.4.2024. (CR)

George Petean (Simon Boccanegra) and Kwangchul Youn (Fiesco) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Director – Peter Stein
Set designer – Stefan Mayer
Costumes – Moidele Bickel
Chorus director – Thomas Lang

Simon Boccanegra – George Petean
Fiesco – Kwangchul Youn
Paolo – Clemens Unterreiner
Gabriele Adorno – Freddie De Tommaso
Amelia – Federica Lombardi
Pietro – Evgeny Solodovnikov
Captain – Agustín Gomez
Amelia’s Maid – Jenni Hietala

Peter Stein’s crepuscular 2002 production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (in its later, 1881 version) is simple but hauntingly effective. Rather than impose any particular concepts or ideas upon this operatic re-telling of an episode in fourteenth-century Genovese history, it focuses directly and intensely upon the relationships among the principal characters. But as the prevailing gloom suggests, it is not the neat resolution of those tense and confrontational relations within the final scene that ultimately forms the emotional or dramatic climax here. Instead, a narrative arc is drawn from beginning to end – that is, between the glass casket shown at the conclusion of the Prologue with the body of Maria (the mother of Amelia, Boccanegra’s daughter) and the death of Boccanegra himself at the opera’s very end, his corpse elevated on a bier among the crowd. However, the manner in which the whole drama is executed on stage by the performers here gives to the production the aura of a ritual, a Classical tragedy played out with gripping solemnity.

Along the way, minimal sets fix attention or draw contrasts with the darkness as almost Symbolist points of reference – for instance, in the Prologue a series of architectural panels evoke the world of Renaissance humanism (Petrarch is even once mentioned in the libretto as a contemporary figure), an ironic reminder that, within this world, vengeful, violent forces drive the action of the opera. A plain white bench enhances the private intimacy of the scene between father and daughter in which Amelia discloses her identity, and contrasts with the throne upon which he sits in state in the ensuing section of Act I in the council chamber. If the painted backdrop for the latter seems all too simplistic and realist (and Boccanegra wears the corno of the Venetian doges) the near empty room with a table and chalice into which Paolo pours the poison for Boccanegra to drink is appropriately eerie.

Nonetheless the performance of that council chamber scene forms an electrifying midway climax here as the plot to kidnap Amelia is discovered, the baying mob appears, and Boccanegra moves with tactical astuteness by cornering Paolo and having him curse himself as the perpetrator. Clemens Unterreiner is never less than commanding or forthright in the latter role, but here he rails terrifically, not only against Boccanegra but also fate itself. The sinister, snarling tones drawn by Marco Armiliato from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is as disturbing as anything in Wagner, although the thundering unison utterances which alternate with Boccanegra’s pronouncements also call to mind Turandot.

Federica Lombardi (Amelia) and Freddie De Tommaso (Gabriele Adorno) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

George Petean replaced Luca Salsi in the title role for this performance but remained musically somewhat in the shadow of Unterreiner’s Paolo. However, he did clearly chart the character’s development from flustered corsair in the Prologue, who is prevailed upon to become Doge, to a more stable authority on assuming that role. Federica Lombardi embodies Amelia musically with much control and purity of voice, but instils the part with more emotional, even ingratiating, urgency to deepen her personality or express vulnerability – notably when she reveals to Boccanegra that she is his daughter.

Kwangchul Youn gives a steady, grave performance as Fiesco (Amelia’s grandfather), his long-standing animosity against the Doge inscrutable but implacable here. There is colour and breadth from Freddie De Tommaso in the fervour of his account of Amelia’s lover, Gabriele Adorno (an enemy of Boccanegra’s, but eventually brought around to his side). But he garners impressive energy for the great range of feelings expressed in his impassioned, extended Act II aria, in which he contrives to lose control of those feelings, such is his vehemence. Evgeny Solodovnikov’s Pietro is somewhat wayward, but there is a distinguished contribution from Agustín Gómez in his brief appearances as the Captain.

Armiliato and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra are no mere accompanists but convey as much of the drama as the singers, both with the gravity which underlines their reading of the score in general (without at all being ponderous) and the instrumental detail with which they articulate the particular turns of event. The icily cold high violins which creep in after Boccanegra drinks the poisoned water stand out as a vivid example. But it is the consistently ominous atmosphere, wonderfully sustained in this performance and production together, which remains in the mind above all.

Curtis Rogers

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