Simon Boccanegra is a dark and sombre work with a convoluted plot but it provides vintage operatic pleasure with the right cast under the right conductor. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, bats a thousand, as they say in baseball, with its current revival of Verdi’s much-revised opera. We get the 1881 version, for those tracking details.
Antonio Pappano’s vigorous conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House does not allow for a dull moment. The production by Elijah Moshinsky has been around since 1991 and although I cannot express unreserved enthusiasm for the set designs, it is a thoroughly enjoyable staging.
The sombreness of the opera is reflected in the vocal distribution. We do have a tenor who turns out to be a fine person after some wrong turns on the road and a much-suffering soprano but the rest are baritones and basses.
The name role is handled with ease and aplomb by baritone Thomas Hampson. He has sung the role so many times that it seems to be a part of him. The tall American has a great stage presence and he fulfils the vocal requirements with resonance and complete control.
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto seems to have cornered the market for older men with rumbling low voices. He has the role of Jacopo Fiesco, an angry patrician who hates Boccanegra. Fiesco takes some unpleasant turns in the tortuous plot but in the end he comes out on the side of morality and order. A fine performance on the high par maintained by Furlanetto.
The unredeemed villain of the opera is Paolo Albiani, politically and morally corrupt, who ends up on the gallows. Baritone Dimitri Platanias shuffles on the stage, oozes evil and gives an excellent vocal performance, acted well.
The lighter voices are given to tenor Russell Thomas and soprano Hibla Gerzmava. Thomas may not qualify as physically heroic but he more than makes up for that with his vocal chords. He leaps to his high notes with ease and displays marvellous phrasing and tonal beauty. We don’t always like his character but eventual heroes are allowed to make mistakes.
The moral centre is held by Amelia Grimaldi as sung by Gerzmava. She is the out-of-wedlock daughter of Boccanegra who was raised by the wealthy Grimaldi family as a secret replacement for their dead daughter. This plot bit is mentioned to dissuade you from following the libretto and directing you to concentrate on Gerzmava’s lovely voice and moving performance.
Hampson and Furlanetto have sung the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in a production by Giancarlo del Monaco. That production has been around since 1995 and a small comparison is inevitable. The Met production is over the top in its monumental sets from a huge statue in the prologue to opulent displays for the rest of the scenes.
The Royal Opera’s sets by Michael Yeargan seem Spartan by comparison. A few oversize columns and almost-blank walls are most apparent. The Doge’s apartments are utilitarian to put it mildly and the only signs of wealth and splendour are the costumes of the Genoan council. No fireplaces and decorated walls here except for the limited grandeur created by the over-sized columns.
The sets take nothing away from the performances by a superb cast and the orchestra and Royal Opera Chorus. A great night at the opera.
Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi in its current revival opened on June 27 and will be performed six times until July 16, 2013 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk