Monday 20 June 2011

Blood ties and beyond

Simon Boccanegra, ENO, Coliseum, London

This new production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra represents the ENO debut of Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who also designed the set, but it keeps to a recognisably ENO style, its vague early twentieth century feel reminiscent of Jonathan Miller’s 2009 La Bohème, last seen here in January almost as much as the same director’s 1982 Rigoletto, last seen in 2009. ENO music director Edward Gardner conducts, with Bruno Caproni in the title role, and an impressive Brindley Sherratt as his antagonist Fiesco. The relationship between these two characters is at the heart of Verdi’s opera, which presents very different challenges from those of something like La Bohème or the ENO’s other current show, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The personal drama is embedded in a bigger picture of political turmoil, and ultimately turns on the hero’s response to his historical situation as much as his personal one.

It would be tough to find a modern analogue for the struggle between the plebian and patrician factions in 14th century Genoa. Even if Verdi meant it to speak to a nineteenth century Italian audience still grappling with nationhood, such resonances are largely lost to us now, so the vague early twentieth century in a vaguely Americanised Italy, with its whiff of mass politics and gangsterism, perhaps serves as well as any other setting. Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra first appears as an overweight Fonz, but fortunately this won’t last. The opera’s prologue features the two events that will transform Boccanegra from a lovestruck pirate into a compassionate statesman. First he is made the plebian candidate for Doge, or ruler of the city. Then he learns that his lover Maria, daughter of his nemesis, the patrician Fiesco, has died. As he grieves his loss – grappling rather comically for Maria’s dead body – the streets fill with crowds celebrating his election. 

The rest of the opera takes place 25 years later, with Boccanegra still reigning as Doge of Genoa and his enemies imprisoned or suppressed, but plotting against him. I won’t attempt a full summary of the enjoyably complicated plot – the ENO website links to Wikipedia, but a far better synopsis is included in the printed programme. Anyway, the drama hinges on the fact that Maria had an illegitimate daughter by Boccanegra, a blood tie between him and Fiesco, but she has been missing since infancy. This being opera however, a charming young woman of just the right age turns up in the household of the Grimaldis, enemies of Boccanegra. Amelia (Rena Harms) is sought after by Paulo (Roland Wood), the plebian fixer who got Boccanegra his position as Doge and who wants him to facilitate their marriage, but she is already in love with the young patrician Adorno (Peter Auty, in motorcycle leathers), who is conspiring against Boccanegra with Fiesco, disguised as a priest.

The first scene between Boccanegra and Amelia, when they realise their connection, is beautifully done, with clever graphics complementing the music. But the action really takes off in Scene 2 of Act I: the city council is sitting, and Boccanegra is arguing for peace with Venice, but the senators have no interest in Italian unity. Then the meeting is interrupted by a mob outside. Adorno has killed a plebian who abducted Amelia from the Grimaldi household, leading to further faction-fighting and calls for blood. Amelia, who has managed to escape, begs Boccanegra not to have Adorno killed. The Doge manages to settle things down, imprisoning but not executing both Adorno and the priest. But he is also suspicious of Paulo, knowing of his desire for Amelia, and publicly humiliates him.

It is hard to watch Roland Wood’s Paulo without thinking of Gordon Brown, though Wood more closely resembles Ed Balls. He stamps like a troll, furious at Boccanegra’s ingratitude, and bends double with frustrated ambition. In Act II, he effectively joins the conspiracy against his former master, among other mischiefs telling Adorno that Boccanegra is Amelia’s lover. But the truth will out, and by the end of Act II the conspiracy is undone.

That leaves Act III for a final reconciliation between Boccanegra and Fiesco, with Brindley Sherrat movingly expressing the latter’s regret at a lifetime filled with hatred, and his wish to have known his granddaughter before it was too late. Boccanegra, who has already shown himself more than a faction politician, in his treatment of the earlier conflict as well as his desire for peace with Venice, shows further magnaminity by naming Adorno as his successor, before dying from poison, as is traditional in these circumstances. The opera was in fact first performed in Venice in 1857, so the theme of national unity would presumably have had a special resonance. But while the idea of transcending tribal loyalties in pursuit of something greater may seem less relevant today – or simply vain – the idea that the crude family ties of blood and kinship might give way to genuine love perhaps has a more immediate appeal. It is sad that this idea seems to belong to that vague early twentieth century more than the present, but this production is a welcome opportunity to meditate on it to Verdi’s always-stirring music.

Remaining performances: 22, 28 June, and 2, 5, 7, 9 July 2011.


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