Szeged National Theatre, Hungary - 2013
Tamás Pál, Zsuzsa Molnár, Vasile Chisiu, Stefano Olcese, Adrienn Miksch, Attila Réti, András Kiss, Bálint Börcsök, Szilvia Dobrotka, József Varga
Armel Opera Festival, Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 10th October 2013
Simon Boccanegra is by no means a typical work by Verdi. The composer had by this stage moved beyond the bluster of the works of his "galley years" - beautifully melodic, dramatically driven and often musically inspired though many of them are - towards a maturity of style in his middle-period that didn't rely quite so much on the standard number format of the classic Italian opera tradition. The melodrama is still there in mid-period Verdi, and the composer had yet to have the full involvement of a librettist like Arrigo Boito who would provide him with material truly worthy of his talents (though Boito did later add the Act II Council Chamber scene for the revised version of Simon Boccanegra), but there is nonetheless a greater subtlety and attention to characterisation in the fascinating works from this period.
Not that you would notice this from the 2013 Szeged National Theatre production of Simon Boccanegra presented at the Armel Opera Festival. It's not a bad production by any means, and it's always intriguing to see a work based on the original staging as described in documents from the time, but it's inevitably going to look rather old-fashioned with singers mostly standing facing the audience rather than interacting with one another and belting out the numbers in the classic 'park-and-bark' or 'stand-and-deliver' manner. For a lot of Verdi, if you've got good singers - and the Szeged are strong-voiced and more than capable of meeting the demands - you can get away with this. For early Verdi anyway. For a work like Simon Boccanegra, which relies on moments of tender expression and charged emotions more than dramatic developments to get its full impact across, you need a little more sensitivity than you get here.
Although the production doesn't really help them then, the two competition singers Vasile Chisiu and Stefano Olcese cope well nonetheless with the challenges that are to be found in the roles of Jacopo and Boccanegra. Much like Verdi's La Forza del Destino, there's a Prologue that sits widely apart from the main events of the opera, and it's important that there is a noticeable change in the personalities of the two characters who find themselves in opposition to one another, partly through maturity but also through them having to carry the weight of the tragic and tumultuous events that have divided them. I think that is clearly drawn in the production, at least in as far as it is important for the two main characters, and both performers do well in their attempts to show the necessary gravitas and rich characterisation that would have defined them in the in-between years.
Neither however are entirely strong enough singers with the kind of experience necessary to really bring roles like this to life. A Boccanegra really needs a mature Verdian baritone of experience, a Leo Nucci, a Thomas Hampson or - at a stretch - Placido Domingo, who has proved that he can inhabit the baritone role fairly successfully. It's a considerable challenge however for Vasile Chisiu, and if he doesn't have the ideal power, range or experience to step convincingly into a role like this with the kind of personality it requires, it's a good performance nonetheless and sung well. The unimaginative stage directions probably don't help, and certainly don't do Stefano Olcese any favours as Jacopo Firese, but he often seems disengaged from the drama, singing out to the audience rather than in response to what is happening on stage. Again, there's a nice bass-baritone voice there but it lacks the depth of characterisation required to make the melodrama in the story work convincingly.
Conductor and director Tamás Pál and the Szeged Symphony Orchestra gives a good account of the work, but the subtleties and melancholic undercurrents of the score seem to founder on the failure of the staging to match the necessary tension and drama to the work. The original set designs are well realised by the production team and it's certainly of interest to see the work close to how it might originally have been staged, but for a Verdi work like Simon Boccanegra to fully come alive to a modern audience it would require better direction and singers of considerably greater stature and ability than we have here.
The Armel Opera Festival performance of Simon Boccanegra can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. Subtitles are French only.