Simon Boccanegra has not traditionally been seen as Verdi’s greatest creation. With, however, Plácido Domingo taking on the title role at the Royal Opera House in 2010, and a new ‘film noir’ production from English National Opera in 2011, it has enjoyed a high profile in London over recent years.
The production that Domingo starred in was Elijah Moshinsky’s of 1991, and twenty-two years on it feels rather uninspiring. The set consists of two rows of colonnades, one open and one closed. For the various scenes a back wall is inserted at differing distances from the front of the stage to create a piazza, a garden or the interior of the Doge’s palace.
There are pleasing touches such as the walls bearing either graffiti or more formal proclamations concerning Boccanegra, which ties in with Fiesco’s assertion that the writing is on the wall for the pirate. Overall, however, the rows of Doric columns feel sterile and frame a vast area that very little of the action proves capable of filling.
Fortunately, if the staging does not contribute a great deal, it is not the type that diverts attention away from what is important. Its tendency to attract a ‘park and bark’ approach occasionally feels as if it sucks some of the energy out of the proceedings, but when a cast bark (and act) as well as this present one, it remains a minor problem.
Thomas Hampson, making his Covent Garden role debut as Boccanegra, has a smooth, rounded yet powerful sound while Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco reveals every facet of his outstanding bass instrument with its broad, dark grains. Act III’s penultimate scene in which the pair huddle together in a moment of heartfelt, yet sorrowful, reconciliation is particularly moving, and both performers make us feel for their respective characters. It is ultimately Boccanegra’s past that generates his current difficulties, and the way in which Hampson makes the character seem likeable and fair-minded helps us to appreciate that in office itself he hardly puts a foot wrong.
The gravitas that Furlanetto brings to the role of Fiesco also helps us to enter into the mind of this character who, on his own terms at least, is a long way from being evil. His flaw is his failure to embrace a changing world, which prevents him from accepting a pirate either as a member of his elevated family or as a ruler. He does, however, reject the invitation to murder Boccanegra, even when doing so would secure his release from prison, and maintains that the Doge does not deserve his ultimate fate.
Hibla Gerzmava is brilliant as Amelia and in ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’ succeeds in combining a sweet, pure tone with a rich, sumptuous sound by virtue of the control that she exerts. Making his Covent Garden debut as Adorno, Russell Thomas’ voice is similarly expansive, powerful and impassioned, while as Paolo and Pietro respectively Dimitri Platanias and Jihoon Kim deliver impeccable performances. Antonio Pappano conducts with his trademark combination of passion, sensitivity and attention to detail, and in key arias he demonstrates his particular affinity with the singers by playing to their key strengths in the sound that he demands from the orchestra.