Poetry and perversity merge in Dmitri Tcherniakov's ENO production of Simon Boccanegra. The director is more interested in the motives behind Verdi's most austere opera than the means.
For swords, expect guns. For poison, a paper hat. Led by Bruno Caproni's weary, bespectacled Boccanegra, the war between plebeians and patricians is fought in a matt-grey meeting room. The only colour comes from "the ancient insult" of the Prologue, its brawling chaos shrunk to a small painting in Act I but vast and alive in Boccanegra's Act II dreams.
Pirate or bureaucrat, Boccanegra is already a dying man, tied to his oldest enemy, Brindley Sherratt's Fiesco, by the death of his lover, Fiesco's daughter, Maria. Prologue aside, incident is almost incidental to Tcherniakov's production, the recognition scene between Boccanegra and his daughter Amelia (Rena Harms) distracted and sad, drugged by grief. The suggestion that their relationship might be wishful thinking makes little difference: he needs a daughter, she a father.
Long silences divide each scene. Together with conductor Edward Gardiner, whose reading of the score produces the most refined playing I have heard from the ENO orchestra, Tcherniakov clears space for the curses and confrontations while steering a steady path to Boccanegra's final encounter with Fiesco. Within the meditative whole, there is an astonishing range of physicality, charismatic benedictions, violent embraces, the stumble of guilt from Roland Wood's Paolo, the chair-throwing tantrum of Peter Auty's Adorno, and the intent stillness of Sherratt's Fiesco.
Vocally, the men dominate, purposeful and engaged where Harms buckles girlishly, her top notes glassy, her middle-range brittle. A few forced rhymes aside, James Fenton's translation is clean and expressive. Some will baulk at the neologisms, the contrapuntal pulse of hazard lights from Paolo's car, the audacity of Gelb Filshtinsky's lighting and Finn Ross's video projection, the severity of Tcherniakov's set, the paper hat. But for unanymity and clarity of purpose from cast, orchestra, conductor and director, this is an astonishing production.
Grange Park Opera's first foray into Wagner is slow to bloom. David Fielding's production of Tristan und Isolde opens in an aircraft carrier, with military coffins under Cornish flags. As the love-potion takes hold, trappings of war and power fade. Isolde's Act II bedchamber opens to reveal an en suite forest, beautifully lit by Wolfgang Goebbel, while Tristan dies in an old beach house. Memories and dreams collide as Richard Berkeley-Steele's hero fades in and out of consciousness, his boyhood hopes and sorrows shown in a tableau of the would-be adventurer, his warrior father and elfin mother.
At times the stage is overcrowded – a giant skull, goblet and knife intrude on the Act II duet – yet the lovers' characters are skilfully developed and the Liebestod is touchingly staged. Both Berkeley-Steele and his Isolde, Alwyn Mellor, have the emotional and vocal stamina for their roles, while Sara Fulgoni and Stephen Gadd offer vivid support as Brangäne and Kurwenal. It's less convincing in the pit, where conductor Stephen Barlow draws a sluggish, fitful performance from an overstretched English Chamber Orchestra.
Pool the resources for Garsington Opera's Il Turco in Italia and Opera Holland Park's Don Pasquale, and you might have the perfect bel canto comedy. Rossini's skit on marital boredom and Donizetti's slap-happy savings swindle share a loutish contempt for the elderly, heroines of startling selfishness, and testing tenor serenades. As things stand, Garsington has the perfect minx in Rebecca Nelsen's Fiorilla, while OHP has the perfect tenor in Colin Lee's Ernesto. But while David Parry's Rossini has zest and drive, Richard Bonynge's Donizetti is a limp lettuce leaf, tossed away with the polystyrene take-away boxes from Don Pasquale's Casa del Fish'n'Chips.
With an eye to the changeable weather, director Stephen Barlow has set Donizetti's opera in a British seaside resort on the cusp of regeneration. Joggers and same-sex couples with designer baby-strollers pass by, though few of them linger on the grey and windy pebble beach. Donald Maxwell's Don makes his first appearance on a mobility scooter: mutton to the slaughter as Richard Burkhard's suave Malatesta sets the trap. The incidental comedy is well-observed, the design (Colin Richmond) as sharp as a photograph by Martin Parr. Yet Majella Cullagh's Norina lacks charm to offset her coarseness. Lee's exquisite serenade seems misplaced in this bleak reading of an already black comedy. As to Norina's revamped café, styled after Carluccio's, I give it six months.
Back at Garsington in the touristic sunshine of Francis O'Connor's 1950s Naples set, Nelsen's Fiorilla steals the show. Too hot for Geoffrey Dolton's twitchy Geronio to handle, hers is a small but sparkling voice, flexible, vivacious and with plenty of ping. Quirijn de Lang's Selim smoulders affably through Martin Duncan's dizzy staging, though Victoria Simmonds' Zaida lacks bite and the movement has an end-of-the-pier quality. As the diegetic Poet, Mark Stone is saddled with the thankless task of telling us how funny everything is, while David Alegret's Don Narciso is uncomfortably compressed. The Act II quintet is delicious. Elsewhere, Parry's conducting and first-rate fortepiano continuo provides fizz, if not the warmth of the Mediterranean.
'Simon Boccanegra' (0871 911 0200) to 9 Jul; 'Tristan und Isolde' (01962 737366) to 3 Jul; 'Don Pasquale' (0300 999 1000) to 24 Jun; 'Il Turco in Italia' (01865 361636) to 3 Jul; 'Don Pasquale' (0300 999 1000) to 24 Jun.
Anna Picard makes friends with L'amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park
Grange Park Opera revives Antony McDonald's spell-binding production of Rusalka, with Anne-Sophie Duprels in the title role, at Grange Park, in Hampshire, from Wed. Also Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and The Opera Group premiere Luke Bedford's Seven Angels at CBSO Centre, Birmingham (Tue & Wed, then touring).Reuse content