Royal Opera House 2018-19 Review: Simon Boccanegra

Carlos Álvarez’s Doge Outgrows Rusty Production In Token Revival

By Sophia Lambton

Suspension of disbelief is crucial in the opera-going world – its characters being frequently endowed with childlike minds that have no sense of time or fear of consequence.

With its apparently ageless characters and scarcely tenable premise, Verdi’s tale of “Simon Boccanegra” – the 14th century’s first Doge of Genoa – has few laurels on which it can rest. Encompassing a tepid, largely uneventful score and scant lyrical characterization, the work comes across as a faint, pencil outline of the earlier, full-bodied “Il Trovatore.” Even the most vibrant, innovative staging and a vocally untarnished cast would struggle to protect this vessel from inevitably sinking into the obscuring straits of boredom.

Simple & Predictable

Perhaps these unexciting pieces – those that rarely make the “favorites” list – are doomed to be subjected to downgraded treatment. Now in its twenty-eighth year, Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of “Boccanegra” appears to have made few amendments to its simplistic, predictable setting. While Genoa in the 14th century may not be the most palatable era for design, Moshinsky chooses to rely solely on European clichés of the past without a great deal of elaboration or exactitude.

Palatial courtyards are depicted as nothing but Greek pillars and a shiny, tiled black and white ground; a copper-colored wall inside is inscribed top to bottom with long rows of Latin writing. Changing times of day are manifested by the hue of blue that gleams in the unalterable background. Vexingly monotonous, its single color achieves much more congruence than any real-life sky has done to date.

While costumes are appropriately fitted with medieval cloaks of red and copper velvet, as an entity the spectacle cannot avoid projecting the impression of both laziness and budget-saving. As a compilation of Venetian traits – much less Venetian traits of the medieval era, it accomplishes considerably less descriptive detail than an animated educational short video used in a classroom lesson might.

Saving Grace

Rising to the opera’s saving grace in its lead character, baritone Carlos Álvarez successfully embodies his character in both voice and physical stature.

With a gruff, vibrato-ridden instrument whose sharp fins could corrode the surface of a rock, Álvarez portrayed the aging Boccanegra with a haughtiness whose bombasticity begins to waste away throughout the passing years. Molding his voice to execute a hoarser and more tired sound in the last act, he nonetheless sustained in his portrayal the kind of uncouth, self-entitled body language only someone of the Doge’s power would allow himself.

Authority permeated even the anxiety he feels for his lover Maria as he sings “Misera” shortly before learning of her death. His is a rugged nobility; insouciant imperiousness dissolving with the Doge’s suffering.

Hungry For Revenge

As Jacopo Fiesco, Maria’s father and grandfather of Boccanegra’s daughter Amelia, Ferruccio Furlanetto played an aging man whose energies are being thwarted by destructive wrath. He deliberately pushed the pit of his bass voice to lend an eerie emphasis to words such as “sepolcro,” in describing the palace where his daughter has died, and “seduttore,” in his curse of her lover. This emphasized Furlanetto’s old, enfeebled Fiesco as a man hungry for revenge.

The delivery of his aria of mourning “Il lacerato spirito” was somewhat exaggerated in the shakiness of notes in “Prega Maria per me,” as well as its extended final “me.” Nevertheless, amidst select unstable vocal moments that encroached on his interpretation, Furlanetto was a looming and cantankerous presence.

As the anarchical Paolo, the courtier who arranges Amelia’s kidnapping, baritone Mark Rucker layered his performance with a domineering indecorum striving to contest with that of Boccanegra’s. Unlike the Doge, however, Rucker’s Paolo also exhibits cowardice in certain deliberately shaky vocal moments, alerting us to his status as an insecure criminal lackey. Through his distinct vibrato Rucker renders his instrument throbbingly rancorous in all the right places – even if some high notes flounder in the process.

Less Compelling

Lacking a corpulent middle register, Hrachuhi Bassenz’s soprano is a slender instrument of an unsmooth and brittle timbre that would be much better suited to a host of lighter roles. In her opening aria “Come in quest’ora luna,” Bassenz struggled with many a precarious high note, frequently breathing in places she oughtn’t. While her facial expressions and occasional birdsong-like, silvery notes radiate specks of the character’s innocence, in its entirety Bassenz’s vocal incarnation lacks cohesion – its faults laid bare too often to be easily ignored.

Francesco Meli’s Gabriele – lover of Amelia – took us back to the late 19th century with incessant blasts of loud notes, raised horseshoe-shaped palms and affected falsetto. It should be understood that Meli has a very powerful tenor voice of a near-perfect timbre. Lined with unmistakable ridges, the instrument is semi-pure – creating a distinct but classical sound that calls to mind Italian voices in the style of Mario Del Monaco.

Sadly his own artistic choices are what regularly jeopardize it. Overzealous in fortissimo, he strains many a top note either by accident or in trying too hard to slap viscous layers of feeling across it; several in the middle register emerge likewise as soured. While evidently Meli sings with what is no less than a natural gift, the end result comes out as little more than smoke and mirrors.

With a score of few colorful arias and grand moments of impetus, Henrik Nánási conducted the orchestra mostly reliably. The distribution of various dynamics and rhythms was moderate and staid; sometimes the sections fell apart in their coherence. Overall it was a traditional rendering that occasionally fell into the trap of squeaky brass and noticeable differences in timing across instruments. There was little creativity in it and almost no rubato.

Ultimately there was a sense that few, with the exception of some cast members, invest a lot of feeling in this unexciting, wan revival. That said, “Simon Boccanegra’s” value as an opera cannot qualify as an excuse. Operas aren’t born equal – but their treatments should be.


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