Simon Boccanegra was a resounding success and testament to Elder’s 24-year rejuvenation of the Hallé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Simon Boccanegra (concert staging, 1857 version): Soloists, Chorus of Opera North, RNCM Opera Chorus, Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 18.4.2024. (MC)

Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé © David Hughes

Simon Boccanegra – Germán Enrique Alcántara
Maria Boccanegra (Amelia Grimaldi) – Eri Nakamura
Jacopo Fiesco (Andrea Grimaldi) – William Thomas
Gabriele Adorno– Iván Ayón-Rivas
Paolo Albiani – Sergio Vitale
Pietro – David Shipley

Appointed in 2000, Sir Mark Elder has held the position as Hallé music director for 24 years. At the end of the 2023/24 season Elder is stepping down and will conduct his final Hallé concert on 1st June at the Bridgewater Hall. Before Elder became its music director, the Hallé was rudderless, in dire straits financially and artistically bereft, and he can take much credit for the orchestra’s rejuvenation.

A few years ago, I interviewed Elder in Manchester and, although I knew his work predominantly through his orchestral concerts with the Hallé, it soon became evident that opera was his great love. Away from the Hallé, Elder seemed delighted to have had the opportunity to conduct opera regularly. As a conducting protégé of Sir Edward Downes, I recall Elder explaining in interview that in 1972 as a fledgling conductor he cut his teeth by touring with Downes and working with Australian Opera at the Sydney Opera House. Over two years he gained immensely valuable experience conducting some ten operas and in total 165 performances. There was lots of Verdi and a variety of titles that included The Bassarids, War and Peace and Die Meistersinger. Another major role in opera began in 1979 when Elder joined the English National Opera serving as its music director for 14 years. Since then, Elder has been conducting opera throughout the world.

There is also Elder’s long relationship with the record company Opera Rara, becoming its artistic director until 2019, where he made many recordings and performances of overlooked operas including seven by Donizetti and others such as Semiramide, approaching four hours in length. A lover of Italy and Italian opera Elder clearly has a particular passion for Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. I recall Elder in an interview with Tom Service stating, ‘that in another life, I should have been born Italian’.

Given Elder’s love of opera it is small wonder he had chosen an opera project for one of his final concerts as Hallé music director. It also comes as no surprise Elder chose an opera by Verdi as he considers the composer ‘a great dramatist’. Elder knows Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra extremely well having conducted numerous performances mainly using the revised version of 1881. Some of those Boccanegra performances include Elder conducting the ENO production directed by David Alden in 1986-89 at the London Coliseum. In 1995, for The Royal Opera he conducted a concert performance of Boccanegra with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and London Voices at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. A couple of years later Elder followed this by conducting a series of performances of Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House. In 1998 Elder was at Glyndebourne conducting Peter Hall’s staging of Boccanegra and in 2004 there was also Elijah Moshinsky’s production at Covent Garden.

Back in 2004 Opera Rara released a recording of Boccanegra. A live performance of a 1976 BBC concert from the London’s Golders Green Hippodrome with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Matheson on a 2 CD set. Opera Rara described the album as an 1857 ‘original’ version (click here).

Verdi’s Italian libretto to Simon Boccanegra was written by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Antonio García Gutiérrez’s Spanish romantic drama Simón Boccanegra (1843). In March 1857 Boccanegra, in four acts, premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to a very mixed reception. It was in Verdi’s own words ‘a greater fiasco than La traviata’ in 1852. For some performances soon after, Verdi gave several revisions to Boccanegra but audiences still remained indifferent and subsequent revivals met with little success. Its publisher Ricordi keen to successfully revive the opera persuaded Verdi, who together with accomplished librettist Arrigo Boito, undertook thorough and forward-looking revisions to the score including rewrites, even adding ‘the Council Chamber Scene’. Staged to considerable success the 1881 edition of Boccanegra in a prologue and three acts is the version usually heard and recorded.

Only recently and for the first time, Verdi’s autographed score of Boccanegra has become available to researchers. It was Opera Rara’s repertoire consultant Roger Parker who edited the score, subsequently published by Ricordi (2022). Parker has explained that ‘the autograph materials thus provide a rich new resource, offering us the chance to see Verdi’s richly detailed musical instructions for the first time’.

For this Bridgwater Hall concert staging of Simon Boccanegra Elder and the Hallé combined with the choruses of both Opera North and the RNCM (all wearing black). Of Elder’s male soloists three wore tails and white tie the other two dark suits with Eri Nakamura wearing different long gown either side of the interval.

Elder was conducting the new Ricordi edition of the original 1857 Boccanegra – also with a prologue and three acts – the first performance based on Verdi’s autograph score. A few days prior to the Bridgewater concert, Opera Rara with Elder and the same forces made a studio recording of the opera.

The opera Simon Boccanegra is based on a genuine figure from history who in 1339 was elected as the first ever Doge of the republic of Genoa. Set in the fourteenth century, this thrilling tale of political and family intrigue revolves around love and devotion, loyalty and conspiracy, and deadly revenge. Simon Boccanegra is a corsair who, through political conspiracy machinations, is elected Doge of Genoa and aristocrat Jacopo Fiesco is enraged that Boccanegra has become Doge. Fiesco is also hostile to Boccanegra who had a secret affair with his daughter Maria which resulted in an illegitimate child. Maria dies and Fiesco wants custody of the child, also named Maria, who has disappeared. She has been adopted and is living as Amelia in the Grimaldi Palace. Twenty-five years later, Boccanegra sees and recognises Amelia in Genoa and becomes entangled in a dangerous rivalry ending in Boccanegra’s death by poisoning.

Elder had a truly international cast but it hadn’t all been plain sailing owing to a number of withdrawals. Simon Boccanegra is regarded by many as one of the great baritone roles and both Igor Golovatenko and his replacement Nicola Alaimo withdrew. So, making his Opera Rara debut as Boccanegra was Argentinian Germán Enrique Alcántara and the baritone’s dark tone at times revealed a special sweetness. Endeavoring to make the most of his opportunity Alcántara grew in confidence, acted well and created a compelling Boccanegra, in deep emotional turmoil.

Sir Mark Elder conducting Eri Nakamura (Maria, Amelia) and the Hallé © David Hughes

Another cast change concerned the role of Maria Boccanegra (Amelia Grimaldi) and the withdrawal of Eleonora Buratto presented Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura with the chance to shine and shine she did. Also making her Opera Rara debut, Nakamura displayed her attractively warm and expressive soprano with affecting sincerity, achieving her coloratura confidently. Best of all, in her high register she displayed significant energy and focused power. I noticed she could be heard through the thickest orchestration. Blessed with both artistry and charisma, Nakamura certainly won the hearts of the audience.

Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón-Rivas has already sung for Opera Rara as Arturo Murray in Mercadante’s Il proscritto. Often judged as a thankless role the Genoese nobleman Gabriele Adorno is the lover of Amelia Grimaldi. Exhibiting an enthusiastic stage presence Ayón-Rivas made a tenacious Adorno giving his all. Vocally Ayón-Rivas was strikingly clear, incisive and alert and made a positive impression.

English bass William Thomas has already sung a programme of Donizetti and Verdi songs part of Opera Rara’s Salon Series at the Wigmore Hall. As Jacopo Fiesco (Andrea Grimaldi) Thomas sounded every inch the vengeful patrician. Dark, stable and clear Thomas’s voice production was quite effective in expression. A rather static figure onstage the bass would surely benefit by developing his stagecraft. No fault of Thomas of course, it was rather difficult visually to imagine this Andrea Grimaldi as a man older than his granddaughter, as well as Adorno, her new husband. This type of issue can easily arise with concert stagings.

Paolo Albiani, a Genoese goldsmith by trade, became the Doge’s favourite courtier before turning hostile and poisoning him. Although a small role, Italian baritone Sergio Vitale made a rebellious Paolo. In another minor role the former popular leader Pietro who became a courtier was sung by David Shipley a forthright and well projected bass.

Elder’s perceptive control worked wonders with his orchestral players and solo singers responding positively with surety and verve. I especially admired Elder’s calm manner guiding the solo singers through the tricky Act I finale scene. As only a rare visitor to opera concert performances I had forgotten just how sharp and focused an orchestra sounded on the stage unencumbered by restrictions of the pit. Under Elder the Hallé sounded simply magnificent, treating the audience to adept playing with a dark, nervous tension that the score demands. The spatial audio effects that Elder employed such as positioning instrument groups and choruses around the hall worked extremely well adding both variety to the sound and visual impact.

Both the Chorus of Opera North under direction of Anthony Krause and the RNCM Opera Chorus directed by Kevin Thraves provided strong, penetrating performances. Standing out for me was the glorious singing of the women’s chorus who were positioned high in the side gallery in Act III.

It was at Semperoper, Dresden in 2014 when I last attended a fully staged production of Boccanegra. In my review I wrote that the 1881 version directed by Jan Philipp Gloger was a great success. Yet this concert staging at the Bridgwater Hall also made a resounding impact providing a tremendous evening’s entertainment. Elder made a strong case for Boccanegra, Verdi’s dark and stormy political thriller in its original 1857 version. As his final season as Hallé music director draws to a close the concert performance of Boccanegra was an ideal opportunity to thank Sir Mark Elder for such a successful tenure. In appreciation the audience clapped and cheered long and hard with many standing too.

Michael Cookson

Featured image: Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé and choruses © David Hughes

1 thought on “<i>Simon Boccanegra</i> was a resounding success and testament to Elder’s 24-year rejuvenation of the Hallé”

  1. “Another major role in opera began in 1979 when Elder joined the English National Opera serving as its music director for 14 years.”
    This is the regular data given elsewhere too.
    But, for the sake of accuracy, Elder joined the ENO in 1974 and became MD five years later. I know, I was there. I too joined the ENO (as orchestral cellist) in 1974 and played under Elder already in our first year. For instance, I clearly remember Elder conducting Henze’s Bassarids in 1974.


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