Simon Boccanegra, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2011

At the end of this opera, Boccanegra is finally reconciled with his arch-enemy Jacopo Fiesco, and blesses the marriage of his long lost daughter Amelia with the young Gabriele Adorno, a previously sworn enemy. Now, dying of a slow poison, administered by his right hand man Paolo, he asks Fiesco to make Adorno his successor as Doge of Genoa.

The Prologue with Fiesco in the foreground, all photos Mike Hoban

Powerful stuff, and Verdi was a master of expressing father-daughter relationships, but in this production, Amelia who has been — quite rightly — adoring and protective of her father, is suddenly shown to be unable to embrace him as he asks her to when he’s dying. Instead of the opera ending with his peaceful death on stage, he wanders off-stage in a strange paper hat, and she suddenly rushes after him, returning in anguish. As the music quietly ceases we see her having a fit. Why? What’s the point? Cruelty may be in vogue at the moment but there is quite enough in this opera without needing to add more and upset Verdi’s beautiful ending.

The Council Chamber, Boccanegra centre facing

The music has sublime moments, and powerful moments, and was superbly conducted by Edward Gardner. The chorus sang strongly, as did the main performers, and Brindley Sherratt was extremely powerful and entirely convincing, as Fiesco. Rena Harms gave a vivid portrayal of Amelia, Peter Auty came over very strongly as Adorno, and Bruno Caproni showed increasing gravitas as Boccanegra, though his voice was somewhat occluded when he turned away from the audience on several occasions. As Paolo, Boccanegra’s right hand man and later his nastiest enemy, Roland Wood sang very well, and Mark Richardson gave a sinister impression of Paolo’s henchman Pietro.

Adorno and Amelia

The production by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who also designed the sets, contained some imaginative ideas, particularly the flashbacks as the old set for the Prologue reappears by a clever trick of Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting. I also liked the pedagogical narrative, explaining the story during scene changes. That helps make things clear, particularly for those who may be unfamiliar with the opera, but the costumes made things less clear. Apart from Adorno in his motorcycle gear, most of the men in the ruling oligarchy wore grey suits, making it difficult to distinguish different characters — for example, Boccanegra and Paolo looked remarkably similar. At least Fiesco wore a dark suit, but the uncompromising greyness was a bit much. The Council scene was set in what looked rather like a cheap lecture room with very cheap chairs, perhaps to reflect the tiresomeness of government compared to the colours in the Prologue, which takes place 25 years earlier, as reflected in the late 1950s / early 1960s car and costumes.

At the final curtain calls there were several boos for the production team and I wonder whether this might be due to the strange ending when Amelia refuses to embrace her father? The only explanation I can think of is that Amelia is annoyed with him since she’s only just found her maternal grandfather, but what was in the director’s mind I don’t know, and I can’t see the point. Better to let the music speak over the dead body of Boccanegra, as Verdi intended.

Performances continue until July 9 — for more details click here.

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