OPERA / Noises off-stage: Della Couling on Chung's final opera as musical director at the troubled Paris Bastille

I heard the authentic baying of the mob last night at the Bastille - both before and after the performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which opened the new opera season. As always in Paris, factionalism has been rife in the now notorious power struggle between the Bastille's semi-detached musical director Myung Whun Chung and overall director-designate Hugues Gall (present score: Gall 1, Chung 0). Chung therefore strode (no tumbrel) to the rostrum for his swansong to a deafening uproar, lasting several minutes, from his many supporters.

For the next three hours or so there was precious little drama, as German director Nicholas Brieger's aimless production wended its weary way across the vast stage. Off-stage shenanigans can scarcely be blamed, nor yet Boccanegra's densely complicated plot of power struggles and more in 14th-century Genoa.

Verdi himself was deeply unhappy with the first version, premiered in Venice in 1857 to Piave's libretto. Over 20 years later he took Boito off the Otello libretto to revise Boccanegra thoroughly for a second premiere in 1881. Musically the revision was an improvement, however Boito not only failed to remove the plot's more obscure complications, but introduced some of his own. The result is a ludicrous melodrama with, in addition to the involved political background, a long-lost daughter whom Boccanegra inexplicably fails to acknowledge publicly after finding her, and Boccanegra's poisoning planned in a shamefully haphazard way.

All this certainly presents a challenge to the director, but I can think of many - particularly among Brieger's fellow-countrymen - who could have risen to it with relative ease. Instead, we have the tired old grand opera style Hugues Gall is determined to eradicate once he takes over next year.

After a rousing introduction (the orchestra, for whatever reason, excelled itself throughout), the Prologue of Boccanegra's return to Genoa gave a foretaste of Brieger's weak directorial hand: Boccanegra (Frederick Burchinal - a last- minute replacement for Vladimir Chernov) lurks ineffectually behind a column while his two supporters Paolo and Pietro plot and spend much time walking up and down. Old Fiesco (Roberto Scandiuzzi in magnificent voice) likewise found little to do.

Kallen Esperian as Amelia / Maria, a fine Verdi soprano, is made to do irritatingly silly things, such as carefully closing doors behind her before dashing off somewhere. When Boccanegra finds his long-lost daughter, the two of them then ludicrously perch together on a single chair, cheek to cheek, as it were, for a tender father-daughter duet. Set designer Gisbert Jakel is altogether parsimonious with the furniture: the room in the Doge's palace where most of the final act takes place contains only a fountain and a camp bed.

There is no recognisable logic in Brieger's concept - if concept there is. The action is set vaguely at the beginning of this century, baddies Paolo and Pietro in fascistoid jodhpurs and black shirts and patricians and plebeians either in frock coats or uniforms with Marshal Petain hats.

At the end of the evening, Chung was loudly cheered again by his faction (the orchestra threw him flowers), and patricians and plebeians united to roundly boo Nicholas Brieger. There's hope yet.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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