Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 21 February - 11 March 2004
Simon Boccanegra has always failed to attract the attention it deserves.
The disaster of the 1857 premiere led the composer to revise it in 1881 by improving the orchestration and completely rewriting the finales to Acts 1 and 3.
Even now this most dark and politically-charged of Verdi operas is hardly the cornerstone of most opera houses' repertoires - the Royal Opera should be proud of its championing of the work in this, its fourth revival of Elijah Moshinsky's 1991 production.
Set in mid-14th century Genoa, Boccanegra is one of the most convoluted of operatic plots, not least because of the twenty-five year time lapse between the Prologue and Act 1. In the Prologue we learn that Simon Boccanegra, an ex-pirate, has been having an affair with Maria Fiesco, daughter of his arch-rival Jacopo Fiesco - meanwhile, Boccanegra is appointed to the position of Doge with help from Paolo. In Act 1, Amelia. the daughter of Maria (who died in childbirth) and Simon is living with Fiesco, believing that her parents are dead. Fiesco is unaware of Amelia's real identity, having brought her up to be his heir in the belief that she is an orphan without connections.
When Simon accidentally discovers Amelia, they are overjoyed, but Paolo's demand for Amelia's hand in marriage in return for helping Simon to the post of Doge is refused because Amelia already loves another. In revenge, Paolo poisons Boccanegra with a very slow-acting poison. Eventually Fiesco and Boccanegra are reconciled, the latter leaving his daughter in the care of the former, and Gabriele is named as the new Doge as well as being given the hand of Amelia in marriage.
Not the easiest of stories to get across, perhaps, but the recent performances certainly conveyed both the musical meaning and the emotion of the opera as well as one could ever hope. In the title role the German bass-baritone Franz Grundheber captivated the whole audience from the beginning. The paternal aspect of his performance was especially strong, and his dark-hewn voice excelled in the death scene.
Veteran British bass Robert Lloyd made his farewell to the stage in the role of Fiesco in the performance on March 3rd and drew a well-deserved ovation from the crowd. There is no audible or physical sign of strain on voice or person, but it's certainly better to retire with such an impressive performance than to continue to perform after one's vocal reserves have been thoroughly exhausted. His performance was incredibly intelligent, inhabiting this role like nobody else has for the last twenty years.
The American tenor Neil Schicoff in the role of Ameila's lover, Gabriele Adorno, was slightly unconvincing as the romantic lead but that is nothing new for tenors. His rendition of Adorno's Act II aria was totally engaging, however, and deserved the audience's cheers. The only uneven member of the cast was Peter Sidhom, who acted the role well (as he did in ENO's Rigoletto) but frequently adopted tempi different to those of the conductor. At times he simply refused to listen to the orchestra, to the detriment of the drama.
The vocal star of the evening was inevitably Angela Gheorghiu, one of the world's greatest sopranos (if not the greatest soprano) of today. After a shaky start in Amelia's impossibly difficult opening aria, Come in quest' ora bruna, Gheorghiu's voice brought tears to the eyes on more than one occasion. She is a formidable dramatic presence as well, bursting through the chorus in the Council Chamber Scene with immense energy and soaring above their voices as well. Her performances of Gounod's Faust later this season were sold out within two days of booking opening, but the opera is to be broadcast on BBC 2 in June - don't miss it.
The greatest honours of the evening go to Mark Elder, one of the most underrated opera conductors of today. After his insightful performance of Lohengrin here last year, we were treated to a spacious, atmospheric and exhilarating reading of Boccanegra. The opening bars instantly evoked the maritime setting of the opera, and the ensembles were very well coordinated indeed. Elder conducted the whole score from memory, for which his dedication and knowledge are to be admired. Elijah Moshinsky's production with sets by Michael Yeargan is admirable, an uncluttered staging with enough detail to engage the audience without proving a distraction.