A bit of a Doge's dinner

OPERA: Simon Boccanegra; WNO, New Theatre Cardiff

An opera that opens with the landslide victory of a populist party - albeit tainted by assorted electoral irregularities, including blatant ballot-rigging and unsubstantiated allegations of satanic child abuse amid the ruling classes - and with a plot that centres upon the party- leader's reunion with a long-lost love-child (put out for adoption years before as a plebeian cuckoo in a patrician nest) might well be seen, in these neophiliac times, as crying out for topical updating. Thankfully, David Pountney's new production of Simon Boccanegra for Welsh National Opera resists any such temptation to remould Verdi's dark family saga into a Secrets and Lies of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Sadly, that's about the only cause for thanks in a largely dispiriting evening.

The central strength of the show lies in Ralph Koltai's set: two mirrored side walls, a seascape backdrop, and a pair of free-hanging, infinitely mobile flats that serve both to define ever-changing acting areas and to symbolise the two sides of 14th-century Genoa's class-divided society: the one, a shiny, translucent, blue-veined palazzo facade, once proud but now tastefully distressed; the other, a rough sheet of earthy, rusty red, riven from top to bottom by a jagged crack (in token, perhaps, of the split that will eventually see the people's party tear itself apart). The weakness of the staging is that, within the bare simplicity of this set, the cast's vocal and dramatic shortcomings are all too painfully exposed.

Only Paul Charles Clarke's Gabriele Adorno seizes his moments, his narrow- bored tenor pinging heroically away in what, ironically, are the most out-moded, unreconstructed parts of this much-revised score. Alastair Miles's patrician Fiesco almost possesses all the bottom notes he needs, but lacks the physical stature, the sheer weight of years, to carry off the role of Boccanegra's avenging nemesis. As Amelia, alias Maria, the foundling girl whom Fiesco adopts and, all too late, discovers to be his very own grand-daughter, Nuccia Focile seems sorely over-strained, her high notes pinched, her tone unable to float above the great ensembles and pour down the requisite benedictions from above. Most miscast of all, Phillip Joll, the Boccanegra, simply lacks the warmth and humanity that must ooze from this old seadog's every pore; in the absence of any true legato, any ability to sing softly (casualties, surely, of too many Wotans at too early an age), this Doge's every statement - inner longing, as well as public pronouncement ("Peace and Love" his watchwords) - erupts at a barking forte, while any efforts at serious characterisation are sabotaged by the big girl's blouse he is made to wear. Carlo Rizzi's metronomic, over-loud conducting hardly helps.

In the great Act 1 Council Chamber scene - that inspired addition to the revised score, whereby the simple sorrowing father of the 1857 original is transformed into a visionary peacemaker, a prophet of the united Italy to come - Pountney offers only bathos: stick-insect Plebs and Patricians in red and blue robes, strutting about on stilts; poster-style tableaux vivants of Genoa's bloody history (rival chorus clans shoving away at their respective screens), or The People's longing for peace (all join hands and step to the front). The only poetry in the whole evening is the Petrarch canzone emblazoned across the back wall during Boccanegra's death - and even that only adds an entirely unwanted political subtext to the opera's most deeply personal moment.

Further perfs: 23, 28 May, New Theatre, Cardiff (01222878889); then touring

Mark Pappenheim

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