Sunday, 16 December 2018

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Paris, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2018

Fabio Luisi, Calixto Bieito, Ludovic Tézier, Mika Kares, Maria Agresta, Francesco Demuro, Nicola Alaimo, Mikhail Timoshenko, Cyrille Lovighi, Virginia Leva-Poncet

Paris Opera Cinema Live - 13 December 2018

Verdi's mature period operas have always been problematic, their dramatic plot lines never quite keeping up with the growing maturity and sophistication of the composer's musical writing or compromised by Verdi attempting to rework material to suit French grand opera needs. As far as Simon Boccanegra is concerned, it's another case of rewriting, but rather than revisiting an earlier work first performed in 1857 to suit a new audience 23 years later, Verdi seems to be working to his own musical imperative, drawing deeper on his own experiences of family struggles and his observations of human nature during the upheaval of the Italian Risorgimento.

As a consequence, Simon Boccanegra is quite unlike other Verdi works, seeped in a tone of deep sombre melancholy that only the darkest passages of I due Foscari and Don Carlos can come close to matching. Recognising the failings in Piave's original libretto, Verdi enlisted the services of Arrigo Boito, with whom he would craft his late masterpieces, and Boito does bring a greater poetic touch to the work and human feeling to the sentiments, but the themes remain essentially the same as those consistent throughout Verdi's operas - love versus duty and one's responsibility towards family versus the people and the nation as a whole.

The reworking of the material however leaves the problem of Simon Boccanegra consisting of a patchwork of scenes with leaps in time periods and gaps in the drama, and when staged it just never seems to flow or hold together despite the insistent tone and musical language employed by Verdi. And it really is music on another level, separated by a vast gulf from those early works. The youthful force and drive is still there, but the difference here is that it expresses internalised drama rather than underscoring melodramatic plot developments of war, vengeance, fate, padded out with popular laments, pleas to god, and drinking songs.

It's a little unfair to characterise Verdi in those terms, but it just illustrates how far Verdi's ambitions and ability have moved on from the standard template and from the necessity of writing to meet the expectations of an audience. Some of those problematic dramatic elements remain in Simon Boccanegra of course, and it seems unlikely that a director like Calixto Bieito would really want to or be able to make anything convincing out of them. Somehow however, without denying all the colour, drama, fury and sensitivity that makes up a Verdi opera somehow Bieito lays open Simon Boccanegra in his Paris Opera production in a way that somehow gets to the heart of it. It's an absolutely stunning experience.

Once you get rid of the period accoutrements and costumes of 14th century Genoa, and once you dispense with the distractions of the plot and the near impossibility of making it seem credible, there's room to look for the deeper sentiments at the heart of Simon Boccanegra. Susanne Gschwender's set designs, the stage stripped of everything but the huge skeleton of the hull of a ship that revolves to show us what would appear to be a representation of the mind of Simon Boccanegra, the Doge of Genoa. Seen lying prone on the floor, a position he also takes having been poisoned in Act II, it's tempting to see the fractured narrative and its strange outpourings of emotion and grief as that of a fevered mind of a former corsair viewing it in a heightened state.

And that works well for a narrative as fractured as Simon Boccanegra. Bieito is then able to introduce a vital element that is usually absent from the dramatic presentation of the work but which is ever-present in Verdi's music; Maria. The association of news of the death of Maria at the very moment that he is proclaimed Doge creates a fusion that haunts Boccanegra. It doesn't just cause problems with Maria's father that lead to political plotting and family feuds, but - along with the disappearance of Simon and Maria's daughter - it's also something that has a deep personal impact on him, a melancholic yearning associated with his office that remains with him all his life.

That sentiment is what you can hear when you hear the music that Verdi has composed for the opera, and it's there from the very first note, Fabio Luisi drawing the darkness out of the detail and the silences in the score. It's appropriate then that director Calixto Bieito introduces Maria as a ghostly presence throughout the work, even showing her normally off-stage reported death by having her father drag the dying woman onto the stage to confront the husband who let her down. The image is powerful, and Boccanegra cannot shake it. She haunts the ship of Simon's mind as he himself lies dying, caught up in his own melancholic reflection, sadness and regret.

The risk is that this internalised perspective aligned with Verdi's music could push this further over into high melodrama, but by allowing nothing extraneous to distract - much as Verdi's complete stripping away of any dramatic underscoring or ornamentation does - Bieito's production is able to focus on the sheer depth of feeling a father has for his daughter, for his family, for the regrets that have allowed political events beyond his control impinge on their natural development. It's something that Verdi would very much want to express from a personal viewpoint and Bieito's production permits this much better than any version of Simon Boccanegra I've ever seen before.

There's no effort to clarify the complexity of the plot or the gaps in credibility that come with Simon being reunited with his lost daughter, but there is every ounce of emotion put into expressing such longing and such feelings. If there's one place where the value of Bieito's work as a director shows, it's in his directing of the performers to make all those sentiments come to life. There's no opera theatrics here either in the mannerisms of the delivery of the singing; all of it comes from the heart, which might mean it's not quite naturalistic, but in the context of Verdi's music that is simply perfect, unadorned, unguarded, unredacted pure emotion.

As is ever the challenge with Verdi - even in those roles that aren't created purely to show off the abilities of the lead performers - is getting singers capable of handling the considerable vocal challenges that go along with the advances of characterisation in these later operas. If Maria Agresta couldn't always carry the fullness of sound that is needed, there aren't many who can meet the demands of the extraordinarily challenging range required for Amelia/Maria, but her performance was as intense and heartfelt as it needed to be. Ludovic Tézier continues to develop into one of the best Verdi baritones around and gave a commanding performance here, equally intense, equally heartfelt. When you add in the kind of delivery given by an outstanding Francesco Demuro as Gabriele Adorno and the contrast provided by Nicola Alaimo's Paolo, the results were truly shattering.

Links: Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox