Thursday, 9 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra, ENO


ENO's new Simon Boccanegra is something of a passion sinkhole, although intriguingly it's as much through design as through misfiring. The opera itself is a queer fish, pulling the focus of the drama away from the conventionally limelit vexed lovers to concentrate on political powerplay and Verdi's own fascination with the father-daughter relationship. An early cousin of the through-composed Falstaff, Boccanegra is steeped in glorious music in an endlessly inventive lower-register palette, complementing the low voices of the principals. The bass-baritone rumination on family and country is periodically punctuated with terrific outbursts from a young couple or the chorus. Or it's meant to.

It's this flaring of feeling that I missed above all else in this drab - but not thoughtless - production from Dimitri Tcherniakov. Following a technicolour prologue channelling Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto, the production updates (we are 25 years hence) to a Dragon Tattoo style Scandinavian monochrome (right). The biker-goth thriller that the axis of Amelia and Gabriele tilts at is also passed over as the opera moves into the second scene, an identikit European convention room.

This is the space in which the rest of the opera plays out. Tcherniakov's awareness extends from the cinema to contemporary politics - this setting and design is a relation of the oligarch/benighted middle-class Tsar's Bride that the Royal Opera staged only last month, with the patrician-oligarchs wearing suits here and the plebian mass clad in dowdily branded street clothing. In this space Boccanegra's rule is by sufferance. It is the opposite of the scheming Berlusconi persona either from television or Paulo Sorrentino's film Il Divo. This Boccanegra is no manipulator but a charismatic bear, never calculating but simply imposing himself on moments of half-hearted civil discontent.

And, alas, that imposition is simple. The chorus storming of the senate room in this closing scene of the first act is like a collection of tourists shuffling through the Hermitage, or 'getting close' to civic machinations in the Norman Foster Reichstag dome. It makes the well-executed close of the prologue (a champagne-spattered celebration of Boccanegra's election) look more exciting than it was. In other crucial moments calculation robs  gestures of their grip - Boccanegra bearing Maria's body from Fiesco's house suffers abysmal acting from a protesting maid, Boccanegra's reunion with his daughter is without embrace - and the music, reflexively, fails to boil over.

As for the management of the music, conversely, I find that this production establishes Edward Gardner as a formidable operatic conductor. Though the music never really broke the levee of the stalls, it is clear that Gardner's grip on the score - and its relation to Tcherniakov's appropriation of the drama - was total. This was an exemplary demonstration of directorial will and professionalism, two values that will succeed where even the most exciting musical inspiration may fail. Yet we have seen Gardener's musical inspiration on show already in the thematically similar Boris Godunov in this house two years ago, so there is nothing but good news coming from this department.

The singing is also largely very good. Again, like in the Boris, Brindley Sherratt is the finest voice on stage (as Fiesco) although he is matched by Bruno Caproni's Boccanegra. This is a super, richly colourful Verdian baritone with remarkable over and undertones to the sound. The colouring has a character of reminiscence as eloquent as that which Tcherniakov also imposes on this production in a series of inventive projected flashbacks. I was reminded of Glyndebourne's Boccanegra of 13 years ago, Giancarlo Pasquetto, although Caproni has a more beautiful top to his voice. Roland Wood's Paolo might not have the heft of this central duo but his English is crisp and present.

The gilt of Rena Harms' Amelia was a less consistent pleasure, often tarnished by straining to fill the space. This is a common issue in the Coliseum, evinced by Harms producing the only truly magical piano singing of the evening. I believed in the love between her and Peter Auty's Gabriele. It's fresh, if a little confused (who wouldn't be with at least three other men old enough to be her father making some sort of claim to her). Auty was quite brilliant in the first half of the opera, the duet with Fiesco at the beginning of scene 2 a fine highlight. There's a lot of work though and I wonder if he tired in Acts 2 and 3 - although I was grateful for the burst of entropy he introduced to the grid of chairs after the break.

This unleashed onstage chaos is what was missing from the chorus. With some remarkable, textured, lyric bass singing in the prologue I wondered if Martin Merry's enhanced cohort was going to have its finest hour. Alas, the bud of this consistently good house corps didn't bloom into the extraordinary. Perhaps the demands of some meticulous blocking seemed to have played on the mind of the ensemble. There was no fire, let alone explosion. But then perhaps this semi-satirical re-creation of tepid Central and Eastern European political unrest is exactly what Tcherniakov had in mind. It's just not in Verdi.

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