Salzburg Festival, 2019
Valery Gergiev, Andreas Kriegenburg, Luca Salsi, Marina Rebeka, René Pape, Charles Castronovo, André Heyboer, Antonio Di Matteo, Long Long
Unitel Edition - Blu-ray
Whatever the plotting and structural weaknesses of early and mid-period Verdi operas, you have to admire the composer's ability to put every ounce of musical conviction behind them, and none more so than the likes of Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra. If you can find a conductor willing to push it but not sacrifice character detail for bombast, if you can get a director willing to approach the work on the basis of its deeper underlying themes, and you can get singers of equal conviction and technical ability to deliver it with passion and meaning, then those works can approach true greatness. Getting all those elements lined up however is no small task.
The most obvious area of Simon Boccanegra that needs particular attention - and where it is lacking in this Salzburg production - is the plot. To put it mildly, it's difficult to follow and has issues with credibility, contrivance and coincidence. It doesn't have a particular large cast of principals, but the connections between them have conflicts of duty, position and romantic complications, all of which in a lesser production can tend to obscure or distract from the chief underlying theme of the opera, which was clearly the subject that was most significant for Verdi; the bonds between a father and his daughter.
Falling somewhere between Rigoletto and Don Carlo - and not just chronologically - Simon Boccanegra has a central father/daughter relationship that is threatened by personal vanity and ambition in the former work and the heavyweight political concerns intruding on personal freedom and happiness in the latter, not to mention a tone that is consistently gloomy and pessimistic. It never manages to reconcile these two sides despite Arrigo Boito and Verdi's 1881 revisions to the original 1857 version, but with a creative director who can recognise the qualities of the music and bring strong dramaturgy to a production it is possible to make Simon Boccanegra work.
Calixto Bieito's revelatory Paris production is a rare case where the true genius of the work is brought out, the director recognising that what is missing - on the surface at least, it's not missing in Verdi's music - is the presence of the spirit of Maria. Amelia's mother is very much the connecting tissue, the emotional charge that drives Boccanegra's gloomy despair and Fiesco's desire for revenge, the common factor that links the otherwise disconnected scenes separated by time or off-stage developments.
Unfortunately Andreas Kriegenburg, whose productions have consistently failed to really connect with the works in question as far as my experience goes with this director (Not so keen on his Les Hugenots, Die Walküre or The Snow Queen, although I liked his Wozzeck rather more), doesn't have anything similar to offer that might make the plotting and characterisation credible, much less illuminate the deeper undercurrents that Bieito so successfully explored. Aside from functionality the best thing you can say about the pretty vacant set design (again by Harald B. Thor) is that it fills the huge stage of the Festspielehaus impressively. At a stretch it raises the human struggles to an epic scale, or conversely, it shows that all the family feuding is ultimately pointless in the grander scheme of things.
I'm not sure however that this mixed message is particularly meaningful in the context of Simon Boccanegra. At the very least the director should be attempting to make the plot easier to follow and alert the spectator to the nature of the family tragedy that is about to unfold. Andreas Kriegenburg has nothing to bring to the work other than a stylish modern setting with figures carrying tablets and texting messages on mobile phones, and there's a little bit of theatrical mannerism in recognition of the fact that the operatic drama is itself stylised rather than naturalistic. It neither draws however from the melancholic soul of the work nor succeed in making it feel contemporary and relevant.
It's unfortunate because in other respects the Salzburg production is impressive. Valery Gergiev is often criticised for lack of rehearsal but there's no faulting the measured control of the Wiener Philharmoniker here, harnessing all the power of the work, pinpointing the key scenes, particularly the Council Chamber scene at the close of Act I and the highly charged Act II trio confrontation between Adorno, Boccanegra and Amelia. That probably has as much to do with an almost flawless cast that includes an incandescent Marina Rebeka as Amelia, a heartfelt Charles Castronovo as Adorno and an always reliable René Pape as Fiesco. Luca Salsi's Boccanegra is warmly and capably sung, but perhaps due to a failing of the direction, it doesn't carry the necessary dramatic or melancholic weight here.
The musical performance and singing performances are so strong and well-presented in HD on the Unitel Edition Blu-ray that this is certainly worth a look. If Kriegenburg doesn't really help the plot work, Verdi's remarkable score almost convinces in its own right with performances like this and a strong audio/visual presentation. There are no extra features related to the production on the disc, but the booklet contains a brief overview of the problems Verdi had with the work and some commentary on the Salzburg production.
Links: Salzburger Festspiele