Because of its convoluted libretto dramatising aspects of 14th century Genoese history to reflect the political turmoil surrounding the unification of Italy occurring at the time Verdi was writing Simon Boccanegra, its rich, evocative and emotional score was largely unappreciated by the audiences who attended its performances in 1857, and the opera flopped.
Fortunately, more than two decades later, his publisher persuaded Verdi to revisit and rework the opera, and a new, more palatable version, was premiered in 1881. It is this version which Opera Australia is now presenting in this first revival of the production originally staged by Moffatt Oxenbould as part of Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, but now given a “new take” by Matthew Barclay.
The Libretto still takes some working through, but, Barclay’s staging keeps the action uncluttered, straight-forward, and carefully paced to allow plenty of space to savour Verdi’s stunning vocal and orchestral treasures, sung by an outstanding cast under the assured direction of acclaimed Verdi conductor, Renato Palumbo.
Peter England’s’ imposing dark, moody set, superbly lit by Nigel Levings, together with and the brilliant reds, greens, blues and golds of Russell Cohen’s splendid swirling greatcoats, keep the eyes pleasured.
When this production was first unveiled in 2000, reconciliation had particular resonance. Moffatt Oxenbould sought to highlight this in his production of an opera rich with the emotion of Italian unification and dealing with reconciliation between enemies, families, classes, political parties and individuals. In this first revival of this production since then, this approach feels just as relevant.
Rather than embroiling his characters in the complex politics of 14th century Liguria, Oxenbould set his production in Verdi’s own time, in an abandoned and decaying seaside amphi-theatre complete with a vast sweeping staircase, through which the sea can be glimpsed. An Italian community has gathered to re-enact a story from their past, and the prologue begins solemnly with costumes being unpacked from huge trunks and handed out to the actors who will play the various roles.
Opera Australia has assembled a cracker of a cast for this revival. Among the outstanding male voices, Romanian baritone, George Petean, making his first Opera Australian appearances, is perfectly cast, in the title role. As well as his rich, warm tone and handsome presence, Petean has the necessary dignity and gravitas to be totally convincing in his projection of the sincerity of characters’ feelings for his daughter, Amelia, and his passion for the unification of Italy. His singing of Boccanegra’s plea for brotherhood and peace, Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo! provides just one of many vocal highlights.
In the role of Gabriele Adorno, Boccanegra’s intended assassin, who is also in love with his daughter, Amelia, Mexican tenor, now Australian citizen, Diego Torre, gives a brilliantly sung, passionate performance. His thrilling Italianate tenor soars over the orchestra in the ensemble scenes, and blends superbly during the duets, especially in the final quartet which draws the opera to a close.
Italian bass, Giacomo Prestia plays Jacopo Fiesco, the grieving father of Maria, who had borne Boccanegra a child. Maria had died before she and Boccanegra could marry, and the child had strangely disappeared. Verdi stipulated that he wanted a bass who could comfortably get the low notes. Prestia certainly has no trouble fulfilling those requirements, and his duet with Torre, Propizio ei giunge… in which Gabrielle Adorno tells Fiesco that he loves Amelia whether or not she is a Grimaldi, is another of those vocal highlights.
Perhaps the big surprise on the opening night of this season of Simon Boccanegra was that the role of Amelia Grimaldi, who turns out to be Boccanegra’s daughter and Jacopo Fiesco’s granddaughter, was sung, superbly, by Opera Australia principal, Natalie Aroyan, instead of the much anticipated Italian soprano, Barbara Frittoli, who had actually begun rehearsals but then had to return home due to urgent family circumstances.
It will surprise no one who saw her charming portrayal of Micaela, in John Bell’s recent production of Carmen, to learn that Aroyan, who had stepped into the role at short notice, sang magnificently and gave such an assured performance, that few in the audience would have realised that this was her role debut in the part.
Warwick Fyfe is outstanding as Boccanegra’s scheming friend, Paolo Albiani, who was instrumental in Boccanegra’s rise to power, in the hope of eventually marrying his daughter, Amelia. Thwarted in his plan when Amelia falls in love with Gabriele Adorno, Albiani poisons Boccanegra, before he himself is executed. Adrian Tamburini provides excellent support to Fyfe as Albiani’s off-sider, Pietro.
Being a Verdi opera, Simon Boccanegra offers great choral set-pieces. The council scene which ends Act 11, and the moving finale in which Boccanegra succumbs to Albiani’s poison after the wedding of his daughter to Gabriele Adorno, who he anoints as his successor, are up there with his best.
Director: Moffatt Oxenbould Conductor: Renato Palumbo Featuring: Natalie Aroyan, Diego Torre, George Petean, Giacomo Prestia, Warwick Fyfe, Richard Anderson, Rebecca Currier, Stuart Haycock, Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra Revival Director: Matthew Barclay Set Designer: Peter England Costume Designer: Russell Cohen Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Tuesday 26 July 2016
Season continues to 13 August 2016
For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Diego Torre (Gabriele Adorno), Natalie Aroyan (Amelia Grimaldi) in Opera Australia’s production of Simon Boccanegra – photo by Branco Gaica
Review: Bill Stephens