Verdi – Simon Boccanegra

ONP Bastille, Tuesday May 23, 2006

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Johan Simons. Sets: Bert Neumann. Costumes: Nina von Mechow. Simon Boccanegra: Carlos Alvarez. Jacopo Fiesco: Ferruccio Furlanetto. Maria Boccanegra (Amelia Grimaldi): Ana Maria Martinez. Paolo Albiani: Franck Ferrari. Gabriele Adorno: Stefano Secco. Pietro: Nicolas Testé. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra national de Paris.

Vocal types seem to go in waves and we aren’t, at the moment, in a Verdi period. Though hope springs eternal in the operagoer’s battered wallet, as the lights go down for an evening of Verdi, your expectations are lowered as well. So I’m delighted to report that, last Tuesday at the Bastille, much to my surprise I felt the thrill of goose pimples more than once. The Opéra national put together a very strong cast for this “men’s opera” and found a young soprano who will be worth keeping an eye on.

Alvarez’ solid, impassioned baritone contrasted well with Furlanetto’s vast, clear, cavernous bass; the pair of them filled the theatre with sound in a way we rarely hear in the Bastille’s cruelly huge spaces. Stefano Secco is a remarkably good tenor – no bawling or braying – and Ferrari and Testé were high-class supports. Ana Maria Martinez was, it seems, petrified on the opening night, and this, I’m told, explains the discrepancy between newspaper reviews and what we heard. She is young and lacked, perhaps, the sumptuous insolence (or is it insolent sumptuousness?) of the monstres sacrés of the 60s, but I’m intrigued that, with her ample voice and its interesting “grain,” she brought them to mind (more so than, say, Sondra Radvanovsky in 2003’s Il Trovatore).

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the cast, the wishy-washy directing held the singers back from projecting the nobility and heroism they might have. If Simon, for example, seemed a relatively feeble, hesitant personality, it was no fault of Alvarez’; and with punchier directing, Secco might have looked less like the weedy French actor Michel Blanc, short, balding, runtish foil to the blustering Depardieu.

That, to me, (which I put down to Simons’ never before having directed opera: I don’t think he knew how to handle the slow delivery opera imposes and left his singers with nothing to do but cling to each other or let their arms dangle through a whole ensemble of repeated text) was the weakness of an otherwise good production; but many, it seems, would disagree: there was loud, prolonged booing for the director and sets.

The Konzept was to stress the political aspects of the story and set it, basically, in Berlusconi’s Italy. The set was simple: the walls and rear of the Bastille’s capacious stage were lined with a pleated silver-lamé curtain (the libretto is scattered with references to things that glitter and sparkle: the sea, the sky…). Centre stage, a broad podium backed by an electoral billboard.

During the prologue, the floor was littered with electoral leaflets, the podium was grey and the billboard showed the head and name of Fiesco; subsequently, after the chorus had made their (rousing, not to say deafening) appearance in contemporary dress and orange scarves (think Ukraine), the podium was orange and the billboard showed, of course, Boccanegra. For the scene beside the sea, the silver curtain was simply drawn across the front of the stage and the action took place on the apron. For the scene in the council chamber, rows of grey plastic chairs faced rows of orange ones, and when fighting broke out among the grey-suited senators, the chairs were their weapons. The billboards were the palaces, and when we went behind the palace walls, stage-hands turned the podium round to show us the wooden structure behind.

To me, all this worked well: the complicated story was simply and effectively told. But people have gone mad about various things: not just the weak acting and characterisation. They say that the Konzept worked only for the public, not the private aspects of the tale; that the sets were cheap and ugly; that it is unacceptable to play a whole scene in front of a curtain; that the use of trap doors in the podium courted ridicule; that the bright lighting never varied and the silver curtain was dazzling… My own feeling was simply that, with a different director in the same concept and sets, we could have had a really great Boccanegra.

Cambreling, by the way, was booed along with the director. That’s probably because he’s seen as being close to Gerard Mortier, the director of the opera, and therefore a proxy for booing the latter, although it’s true that, after an elegant start, the orchestral playing was more massively monumental – or simply monolithically loud – than Italianate.

For those interested, Ana Maria Martinez has actually published a disc of assorted arias on Naxos. To my ear it’s quite impressive and it will be interesting to see how she develops.

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