Verdi, SIMON BOCCANEGRA: Todd Thomas (Simon Boccanegra), Lara Ciekiewicz (Maria Boccanegra/Amelia Grimaldi), Philip Ens (Jacopo Fiesco), Jason Slayden (Gabriele Adorno), Brett Polegato (Paulo Albiani), and Neil Craighead (Pietro), Victoria Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Vernon, conductor, Pacific Opera Chorus, Giuseppe Pietraroia, Chorus Master, Glynis Leyshon, director, Royal Theatre Victoria, October 13, 2016.

 All photos by David Cooper

All photos by David Cooper

Simon Boccanegra is a connoisseur’s opera. Far from Verdi’s most popular work, it is nonetheless considered by Verdians as one of his finest—not least because his revisions of 1881 enjoyed the benefit of his late style and the help of Arrigo Boito (the librettist of Otello and Falstaff) as its script doctor. Part of the reason for its relative obscurity is the dearth of those arias we love in Verdi (the lead character, for example, gets none), but the compensation lies in the superb ensemble writing—particularly its exquisite duets—and the almost through-composed music, with its rich textures and sinuous continuity. The music, more subtle and harmonically bold than that of Verdi’s earlier works, is of great beauty—and of great power where called for. It’s a style that well suits the complexity of the opera, with its admixture of political and domestic conflicts. In keeping with the political slant is the dominance of male voices, almost all of them deep—three baritones (Verdi’s favourite) and a bass, with only one tenor and one soprano—the lone woman in the opera other than a seconda donna who barely appears. This preponderance gives the work its dark tinta, matching its somber mood.

Major attractions of the opera other than its music are the nobility of its protagonist, his loving relationship with his newly-discovered daughter, and the complexity of its central male characters: Boccanegra’s would-be nemeses, Jacopo Fiesco and Gabriele Adorno, as well as the Doge himself. Fiesco is a man obsessed with vengeance, though too noble to achieve it by foul means, and with a heart capable of love but caught in the grip of hate. Adorno is a man wracked by jealous love conflicting with an obligation of revenge. Boccanegra is a pirate who becomes a politician who has come to prefer peace, reconciliation, and love to violence.

Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of this compelling opera was absolutely splendid. Under the baton of Maestro Vernon the orchestra played with verve and finesse. Every voice was strong and the acting uniformly excellent; especially gratifying was the way the cast all stayed in character, even when not singing. Glynis Leyshon’s direction was telling, facilitating the action, her blocking making sense of what was being conveyed by the music and the characters. There were also imaginative touches, such as the sinister plague figures leaving the Fiesci house immediately after the death of Maria, Fiesco’s daughter and Boccanegra’s love. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting was at times stunning, as in the reverse searchlight-and-mist effect of the third act, looking for all the world as though the gods were mercilessly probing the spectacle of human treachery and suffering below.

Camellia Koo’s sets were more symbolic than realistic. The dominant set, of tall movable bookcases with a giant tree bole in their midst, purportedly resonates with the message of peace and harmony as expressed in Petrarch’s letters to the people of Genoa and Venice—Verdi’s addition to the 1881 version of the Council Chamber scene. The message being: learning leads to tolerance. This connection is reinforced in the opening, with Boccanegra writing in his study as Jamie Nesbitt’s projection of words is being written across the set. Whether the audience can catch such oblique associations is hard to say, given that Boccanegra has been a pirate and there is no reference to his scholarship or learning in the opera—though his enlightened attitude does stand front and centre. Whether the audience gets it or not, the conceit leads to a monolithic ever-present set, at times appearing discordant—as in the outdoors action of the Prologue, looking as though the conspirators are meeting at an al fresco public library. Nonetheless, the set proved fluid, defining the playing spaces well. And Nesbitt’s work continued to be effective, as in the evocative projection suggesting waves in Boccanegra’s poignant Act 3 arioso recalling his beloved sea, ‘Oh refrigerio! … la marina brezza!’

As for the cast, Todd Thomas as the Doge was imposing in his public role, tender and nuanced in his relationship with his daughter. He was splendid in the Council Chamber scene, exhibiting real authority in its magnificent concertato, rising nobly to the challenge of international and sectarian violence, and quite terrifying in his cursing of Paolo. His duet with Amelia in the discovery scene was intensely moving, though sadly his poignant long-drawn-out ‘figlia’ ending the number was overwhelmed by the audience’s enthusiastic and premature applause.

Lara Ciekiewicz as Amelia (the long-lost daughter Maria) was wonderful, with her lovely clear soprano reaching notes with ease and with good use of colour, acting her part with conviction. Her opening aria ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’ was delicately rendered, and her duets with her father and Adorno were movingly sung and acted.

Brent Polegato as Paulo was outstanding. With his firm baritone, he produced strong, well-rounded tones. His acting was characterful—spirited and natural—making him a born manipulator. Jason Slayden as Gabriele Adorno was another happy choice. With his ringing tenor and natural acting, he portrayed well the conflicted young gentleman torn by love, jealousy, and a commitment to vengeance. He handled his duets with flair and did an outstanding job of his Act 2 aria, ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima’, with its high emotions and demanding shift in mood.

Despite the announced caveat that he was suffering a throat infection, Phillip Ens as Fiesco was in terrific voice, firm and descending to his low notes with masterly aplomb. He remained in fine voice throughout, preparing us for pleasures to come with his moving rendition of his opening romanza, ‘Il lacerato spirito.’

We must be grateful to Pacific Opera for taking on late Verdi, as it has done with Falstaff, Otello, and now Simon Boccanegra. The last I am especially thankful for, as it is an opera that does not appear nearly enough. With its interesting characters, beautiful music, and message of peace, love, and conciliation rather than the violent enactment of vengeance, it is very much an opera for today. We were fortunate indeed to encounter a performance of such high quality on this evening.


© Harvey De Roo 2016