Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Philippe Auguin, Peter Stein, Leo Nucci, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Stefano Secco, Barbara Frittoli, Marco Caria, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Marian Talaba, Arina Holecek
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 1 February 2015
The Vienna State Opera production of Simon Boccanegra initially looks fairly low-key, minimal, using basic sets and period costumes, holding faithful to a mostly traditional representation of the work. I say that like it's a bad thing, but nowadays it often can be, unless there is a certain ironical distance involved. The right approach however can be make-or-break when it comes to plots in Verdi operas, and the narrative of Simon Boccanegra is, to be frank, a bit creaky and a strain on credibility. There is another way to make Simon Boccanegra 'work' however, one that hopefully won't go out of fashion like an Otto Schenk or a Franco Zeffirelli production. Having good singers.
Simon Boccanegra is not a Verdi opera that I've seen performed often, and never having seen one that was totally convincing, it's not one that I would ever thought ranks with his best. The Vienna State Opera's production proves otherwise. Simon Boccanegra, it would appear needs good singers more than it needs good direction or modernisation. And the Wiener Staatsoper's 2014 production, broadcast live over the internet via their bold Live in HD programme, fortunately has both. With Leo Nucci as Simon Boccanegra and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco you don't get much better in the big Verdi baritone and bass roles than that. With that kind of backbone, the opening prelude scene of Simon Boccanegra can be every bit as dramatic as Verdi scored it, and - as it sets the tone for what it to follow - it needs to be.
What you can also observe from the direction and production design of the opening scene is that it doesn't disorient the audience with any bold concept, the meeting between the two rivals taking place on a fairly basic representation of a dark square in Genoa. It's difficult enough to establish the family rivalry, the relationships between the two men and the whole political plotting around the election of Boccanegra as the next Doge of Genoa, but it is essential that you do, as this is the key to the events that take place in the main part of the opera 25 years later. Letting the prelude rest on the performances, the charisma and ability of these two singers works partly because these are powerful personalities and should appear to be, but also because both Nucci and Furlanetto bring real sensitivity and depth of expression to their singing of these roles.
Much of this is of course down to how Verdi has written the roles, the composer at this stage demonstrating in his mature works greater nuance for character detail and expression. The quality of the libretto isn't quite up to the same standard and the plot is reliant on many of the old melodramatic contrivances, but when you place great singers in these roles, you can see how it can be made to work, you can see what Verdi will be capable of when he does have libretti worthy of his ability in Don Carlo, in Falstaff and Otello, and it's impressive. Having let the skill of Verdi, Nucci and Furlanetto established the tone of the work from the outset, and given it more credibility that it perhaps merits, the director is able to introduce other elements to support and expand on the work in the subsequent acts, underling its meaning and significance.
How this is done is quite remarkable in its simplicity. The impression that is given in the prelude is that of a dark and shadowy past, and that's an impression that carries through and has influence 25 years later. The staging, we discover when we are introduced to Amelia in the present, isn't strictly traditional either. The costumes remain period, but Act I looks more Robert Wilson minimalist, with a bright pale blue background, and characters wearing rather more stylised white costumes. There's no strange movements or geometric symbolism here (I can't really imagine Simon Boccanegra done full-out Wilson-fashion), but there's an elegance here that speaks of youth, innocence, beauty and hopes that are about to be dashed by that dark past that hangs over the whole work. Act II then brings together all those conflicts and passions in a dark circular room with open lighted doors, a simple table, a goblet for poison and a dramatic red curtain.
In that respect the staging is perfect for how Verdi skilfully packages the themes of the work together. Every now and then we are reminded in the music of those dark undertones established at the opening, the composer bundling them all together in each heated situation that ramps up the emotions, but at the same time gives the plot increasing dignity, depth and credibility. It never feels like the old-style of number opera composition, particularly if it's handled sensitively by the conductor. Simon Boccanegra is not blood-and-thunder Verdi. It's much more subtle than that, requiring a balance between character and drama, and Philippe Auguin manages to balance that well, which is difficult in this work. When it's done right, and when it works hand-in-hand with the staging and the singers however, the impact it has on this opera is revelatory.
Leo Nucci might be getting older, but he still carries Boccanegra and many Verdi baritone roles better than anyone else in the world today. As a weakened Doge, destroyed as much from within as from his enemies, it's a role that suits Nucci well. You could say much the same about Feruccio Furlanetto being the pre-eminent Verdi bass singer in the world today. His technical control and timbre is just gorgeous, but his phrasing also reveals little details of character and a wonderful understanding of the importance of Fiesco's role to the work as a whole. As important as Nucci and Furlanetto are to Simon Boccanegra, there's balance and dynamism required in the roles of Amelia and Gabriel, and that is also superbly achieved. Stefano Secco in particular is impressive as Gabriel, giving one of the best performances on the night. Barbara Frittoli isn't perfect - the role of Amelia is a challenging one for the soprano - but the dramatic intensity of her performance counts almost as much here.
The revelation of Simon Boccanegra, in the hands of Verdi and brought out by a good production and singers, is that the themes are more important than the plot. It's about the past catching up with the present, about the actions taken in the past having resonance and very real consequences in the future. It's about wasted years, years dragged down by old enmities, misunderstandings and waiting for vengeance, of parents failing their children, of leaders failing their people. Much of that is carried by the rivalry between Boccanegra and Fiesco, and unless you really have exceptional performers in those roles, you don't get it fully across. To be honest, I've never really realised just how important that is until this production. The greatness of Verdi operas is Verdi, and that more than anything else is what is all there in Simon Boccanegra. And this is a glorious production of that work.
The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert. Details of how to view these productions in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video