Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

ONP Bastille, Wednesday November 21 2018

Conductor: Fabio Luisi. Production: Calixto Bieito. Sets: Susanne Gschwender. Costumes: Ingo Krügler. Lighting: Michael Bauer. Video: Sarah Derendinger. Simon Boccanegra: Ludovic Tézier. Jacopo Fiesco: Mika Kares. Maria Boccanegra (Amelia Grimaldi): Maria Agresta. Gabriele Adorno: Francesco Demuro. Paolo Albani: Nicola Alaimo. Pietro: Mikhail Timoshenko. Un capitano dei balestrieri: Cyrille Lovighi. Un'ancella di Amelia: Virginia Leva-Poncet. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

The gist of most of the reviews I've seen of Paris's new Boccanegra has been "good singing, bad production", with headlines such as:
  • Sur une mer d'ennui (“on a sea of boredom”)
  • Great voices suffer at the hands of merciless director
  • Panne sèche (“out of fuel”).
  • Des voix superbes sauvent une mise en scène médiocre (“superb voices save a mediocre production”)
  • En fond de cale (“in the bilge”)
and my favourite, not that I personally found it all that bad, from Forum Opéra:
  • C'est pas Bieito fini? (something like “will it never end?” or “won’t it be over soon?” but with a nice pun on Bieito's name).
The singing was undeniably good (though I saw some tough critics denying it was consistently so), headed by Ludovic Tézier, in magnificent voice the evening I was there, firing on all cylinders and acting much better than people usually claim. Maria Agresta's Amelia, though hard-edged at the top, was beautifully sculpted and dramatically committed. Francesco Demuro's timbre at times recalled Pavarotti's, though he doesn't have Pavarotti's extraordinary vocal seductiveness or secret powers of projection - I found myself wondering if singing roles like this in a house of this size might eventually shorten his career. Mika Kares lacked only one degree of blackness as Fiesco, and Nicola Alaimo, once warmed up, was a sterling and subtle Paolo. The chorus was at its best and the orchestra played this special score with a degree of loving tenderness I've rarely heard from them - i.e. they were at their very best, too, verging on the sublime.

The production, dark, handsome and slow-moving, could have been a convincing piece of high-class contemporary art in a very large museum space: an installation with performance and videos. The stage was black, and all we could make out, very dimly, at the start was a structure of steel curves at the back, picked out in slender white neons, with steel stairs. As the platform slowly rotated and the structure inched forward, as it would all evening, it turned out to be an impressively (bigly even) big cargo-ship's prow, smooth and steely grey, with bulb, some of it in section so we could see the bulkheads and decks, the full height of the proscenium: probably the most stunning single prop I've seen at the Bastille since King Kong's head and torso and glowing eyes in Warlikowski's Makropoulos. This was Boccanegra's world, and when not required to sing, he would spend much of his time there, motionless and brooding.

The costumes were everyday "modern poor" or, for the nobs, suits and overcoats. The stage remained largely plunged in gloom. The lighting, like the sinewy neons, was stark and white, often from the footlights, and when the mob bayed for blood, banks of spotlights at the rear blasted through the set into the house - something audiences tend not to like and that people have complained of - indeed, a little old lady I know from Brussels matinees was grumbling about it in the foyer even before we went in, having heard about if from another little old lady who'd already been.

On stage, people - soloists or chorus - crept very slowly forwards, backwards or, on the ever-revolving platform, crablike, sideways. They neither met nor touched nor reacted to one another in any physical way, whatever went on in the libretto and score. This dramatic detachment has been much decried, although Tézier acted up a storm when required and trembled with palsy once poisoned, and the creepy Paolo mopped his brows nervously with a cloth dipped in a silver bucket he carried. Amelia's dead mother, Maria, dragged in initially by Fiesco on a plastic sheet, was on stage (or on the ship's decks) throughout, a mournful, ghostly presence in a ragged dress, sometimes half naked, and laid out fully naked in the video projected on the half-time curtain, with rats crawling improbably slowly, rather than scurrying, over her. The production videos, also black & white, were projected full-size at the rear: live, brooding close-ups of one of the principals as they stood on deck, immobile., or crouched in the bulkheads.

It was, as I wrote above, like a dark, handsome, convincing video-installation-cum-performance in a contemporary art museum. but you wouldn't have stayed there three hours. I sort of ended up finding it hypnotic, but from hypnotic to soporific is a short step, and I can understand how some people got very fed up with the ship, however grand a demonstration of the Paris Opera workshops' craft, crawling round and round in the dark.

I couldn't find a clip of Maestro Wenarto singing anything from Simon Boccanegra, so here's another Amelia from the same composer.


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