The plot of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is convoluted enough to be worthy of an opera seria and like composers of opera seria, Verdi seems to have been more concerned with the dramatic situations that the plot provided rather than the internal logic and clarity. When Verdi and Boito re-worked the opera in 1881 (14 years after the work's premiere), they were concerned with the piece's musical values rather than simplifying the plot.
ENO's new production of the opera (seen on Friday 10th June) was the much anticipated debut of Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov working with a UK company. His production of Eugene Onegin for the Marinsky was the first Tcherniakov production to be seen in the UK and garnered significant praise for its insight (and a number of brickbats as well). So I was curious to find out how he would bring Simon Boccanegra to the stage.
The prologue opened in an attractive and highly realistic Italian square in the 1950's with a glass fronted bar stage left, very reminiscent of the famous Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto. Bruno Caproni's Boccanegra was a leather jacketed, jeans wearing lout, hardly charismatic; in contrast to the trench-coat and trilby wearing plebeans. But the general atmosphere was suitably dark, shifty and dramatic with Brindley Sherratt's Fiesco providing a darkly lowring presence.
Between the Prologue and Act 1 a drop curtain showed a painted representation of this scene, onto which a plot summary was projected; plot summaries shown between each scene, almost as if Tcherniakov did not quite trust his own stage-craft to tell the story. Then, in a stunning piece of video realisation, a full scale projection of this image of the square condensed down to a picture on a wall with Roland Wood's Paolo giving Maisie Turpie's Amela a history lesson.
This apart, the opening scene of Act 1 was a disappointment. The action played out in front of a plain grey scrim using only the front stage. There was no sight of the sea, just a frosted window. The time was the near present. Everything was grey. Paolo and all the other men wore anonymous grey suits.
Turpie's Amelia was spunkier and sparkier than in some productions; definitely a girl with her own mind. Peter Auty's Gabriele arrived in motorcycle gear and stayed in it for the whole opera except for the very final scene (when he and Turpie appeared in wedding finery). The scene between Amelia and Gabriele was well managed and charmingly suggested their playful relationship.
But the recognition scene between Boccanegra and Amelia was another disappointment. Caproni was wearing a suit and overcoat and looked like a cross between Timothy Spall and George Brown. Tcherniakov's production seemed to emphasise the contrast between the official and boring present and the highly coloured past, with the bucaneering Boccanegra settled down into a conventional figure.
More importantly Tcherniakov's personen regie failed to suggest Boccanegra's magnetism and offered no reason why Amelia opened up to him.
One curiosity seemed to be that in the scene between Gabriele and Fiesco, Fiesco was hypnotising Gabriele into assasinating Boccanegra. Though one could easily have missed the sign of this and little was made of it later in the opera.
The council chamber, when it appeared, was an anonymous grey modern interior, characterless and almost featureless. The scene's impact was limited by the combination of this disappointing setting and Caproni's failure to maximise the dramatic impact of his role. Caproni sang the role well enough, but he lacked the charisma to dominate the stage and Tcherniakov's handling of the scene almost played against Verdi's dramatic handling of the music.
The final two acts took place in the same setting thus placing the most important part of the opera in a grey featureless landscape. The reason for this became apparent when, at a couple of key moments, the image of the prologue was projected onto the set, thus transforming the grey present into the multicoloured past. But not enough was made of this, certainly not enough to justify the disappointingly featurless set.
The personen regie in the final two acts was creditably efficient without ever matching Verdi's drama. The most strongly characterised performed was Sherratt's Fiesco, and one wished that Verdi had allowed him to be on stage more. Caproni's Boccanegra was promising but fatally lacking in convincing charisma. And his relationship with Turpie's Amelia just never quite gelled. Turpie's voice was rather more dramatic in quality and her top grew a little too steely.
Peter Auty managed to rise above his unfattering costume and presented an impassioned Gabriele with some lovely lyrical singing. Roland Wood made a strongly dramatic Paolo, rising above the productions limitations, though inclined to overacting at times. Mark Richardson was a suitably cadaverous Pietro.
Under Edward Gardner's committed direction, the ENO orchestra gave a strong performance. Musically this production rose to Verdi's dramatic values and the orchestra were on strong form. The opera was sung in James Fenton's translation, nicely poetic in character it seemed to match the musical values in a way that many modern translations fail to do.
Despite being much anticipated, this production was a disappointment. Tcherniakov's over careful handling of the drama seemed to leave some scenes verging on the boring, though this might have been rescued by a more charismatic performance in the title role.
I still have strong memories of ENO's previous mounting of the opera; David Alden's production during the power house era was highly expressionist, capturing the work's essential drama and lowring intensity. This new production never seemed to catch the work's dark brown feel and the opera never quite caught fire.