Surprisingly, Verdi and his first librettist Piave based Simon Boccanegra on a play by Antonia García Gutíerrez, who also gave us the original storyline for Il trovatore. There is still a dependence upon the machinations of coincidence but it’s an altogether more sophisticated dramatic work. Revised with the help of Boito, who gave Verdi his libretti for Otello and Falstaff, there are obvious Shakepearean overtones in this, the most political of Verdi’s operas.
There are echoes of tribunes working an easily-swayed mob in the prologue and the great Council Chamber scene strongly recalls similar ones in Othello. John Gunter’s design, with one basic setting running through the opera, could easily be for the latter play. With a diagonal slant that looks as though the whole of Boccanegra’s Genoa is about to fall into the sea, had it been set in Venice, like Othello, we could believe the slide into the lagoon had already begun.
The transition, a 25 year leap, from the prologue to Act 1 shows the limitations of the design and Ian Judge’s production. Put together in 1997, as a contribution to the Verdi Festival and an alternative to the Elijah Moshinsky production which had then been running for a few years, it was a low-budget opportunity to see the opera in its 1857 version, alongside that of the 1881 revision. Since then, the production has been expanded and the Royal Opera now present it in the later edition but one wonders why, with a perfectly serviceable production in Moshinsky’s, they have chosen to do it this way.
With one set throughout, the jump out of darkness into light that Verdi’s music achieves isn’t fulfilled in the staging. We aren’t quite lifted out of the grimness of the prologue into the open air, the sea and garden that is so vividly depicted in the score, as the dark pervading walls remain and we get only a glimpse of a sea trying desperately to flood the inner world of political manoeuvering. It is tempting to say that, with a broken frame creating a false proscenium to the action, we are not getting the full picture.
The tone is lightened not just visually but through the first use of higher voices; the soprano of Amelia and subsequent tenor of her lover Adorno are the first voices we hear that are not immersed in the baritonal depths of the men who dominate the first half hour of the opera. In Anja Harteros, we get all the luminosity of sound and colour that has been missing so far. In a frock of brilliant blue, which helps evoke the sea that is being visually held at bay, she looks and sounds stunning, a young Gheorghiu in presence and impact.
The Council scene, the great addition of the 1881 revision, sees Judge making the most of his modest means. With simple additional elements flown in and a masterly use of the crowd, he gives us something much more pleasing to look at and one can’t help thinking that his original production must have been a duller affair without it.
If Harteros shines in her Royal Opera debut, she is surrounded by a cast of strong if generally less inspiring men. Her Adorno is the American tenor Marcus Haddock and he provides a solid presence but doesn’t quite rise to the challenge of his dramatic Act 2 outburst. It’s not for want of trying; he gives it his all and it’s certainly a respectable effort but ultimately lacks edge. As the corsair-turned-statesman, Lucio Gallo is a commanding presence and Ferruccio Furlanetto, standing in at the first couple of performances for an indisposed Orlin Anastassov, mirrors Gallo as a dark and forceful Fiesco.
In the pit, John Eliot Gardiner shapes the score beautifully, bringing all the precision one would expect from him, in a powerfully dramatic reading.
This lesser-known masterpiece, casting forward to the late great Verdian quartet, serves as a taster for the much-anticipated new production of Don Carlo opening at the Royal Opera House next month.