Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is not just a great opera, it's an important one. Age-old themes are weightily addressed. Political and familial strife, the nature of power, the quality of mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation. Peace. A fine conductor will reinforce Verdi's wonderful sense of line and proportion, the ebb and flow of the drama; come the final death knell, he or she will remind you of its perfect symmetry and draw huge satisfaction from its inevitability. Mark Elder is such a conductor.
This piece is so clearly a part of him. He has performed both versions of it, thus putting into perspective the revelation of its revision (the 1881 version performed here); he has complete command of its grand design, along with its shadowy recesses and rash impulses. With five-star playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, his work alone demands a visit to this revival. Indeed, his presence here revives myriad memories of the stupendous David Alden production that he first conducted at English National Opera more than a decade ago. There could be no greater contrast between that - armed, dangerous, alive - and this taxidermic Elijah Moshinsky staging.
Productions like this one are merely empty shop windows in which can be displayed the latest fashions in singers. They are decorative, but impassive. Indeed, this production offers the designer Michael Yeargan's imposing colonnade, receding to an unseen ocean. Its most memorable image is of our heroine Amelia, alone in the moonlight, gazing out to sea, no doubt searching for answers as to her past and future. This revival's starry Amelia, Angela Gheorghiu, of course looks and sounds ravishing in her isolation. But isolation is the key word here. There is a remoteness about her on stage, a sense in which she is untouched by events unfolding around her. And this is the perfect production in which to remain untouched.
That said, she delivers on the singing - and how. The covered beauty of her voice, the fioritura of her opening aria etching in the reflections of starry sky on water, was everything Verdi must have dreamt of and more. Her tendency to press ahead of Elder was a small but fleeting blemish here, and come the great Council Chamber scene her aching plea for peace and reconciliation opened up unforgettably. So exquisitely did she come off the trill on the word "pace", sliding on to the second syllable like a benediction, that it was as if Verdi had written the phase only for her. As singing, it was close to perfection. What notes she sang - but what I wouldn't have given for some real emotion behind them.
Others in the cast were vocally less well-equipped. Neil Shicoff belted his way through the role of Adorno. Bags of conviction, but no nuance, and no beauty. His sound matched his appearance - that of an over-anxious Gene Wilder. Franz Grundheber's Boccanegra was frankly uncommanding, dry of tone and without the requisite reach in the phrasing. By contrast, his arch enemy Fiesco - the towering Robert Lloyd - was all command, the gravity of his sonorous bass extension chiming magnificently with the depths of his despair. It meant as much to us as to Boccanegra that he should eventually find forgiveness in his heart.
But if we're talking about elder statesmen, then the man on the podium made the difference every time. The evening belonged to him.
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