Chelsea Opera Group – Simon Boccanegra

Verdi
Simon Boccanegra [1857 Version; concert performance sung in Italian]

Simon Boccanegra – Jeffrey Black
Maria Boccanegra – Elizabeth Woods
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty
Paolo Albiani – Mark Holland
Pietro – David Stout
Jacopo Fiesco – Mark Beesley

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Tecwyn Evans


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 7 June, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The 1881 version of “Simon Boccanegra” is inevitably a hybrid, building as it does a new structure on the foundations of an existing building and combining the rarefied style of the mature Verdi with the surviving populist features of his ‘middle’ period. Yet the 1857 score itself characteristically points in two directions: echoes of the brashness of pre-“Rigoletto” Verdi and forms inherited from Rossini vie with progressive writing. Most listeners come to the work in reverse chronological order, judging it in retrospect from knowledge of the later score. The 1857 Prelude seems impossibly crude, with its perfunctory compilation of themes from the opera compared with the highly atmospheric swaying figures for lower strings which in 1881 so powerfully establish the furtive atmosphere of intrigue at the opening of the drama, as well as the characteristic tinta of the opera as a whole.

The half-lights and suggestive tints of 1881 require a quite different approach on the part of conductor, singers, and even chorus from the blatant forcefulness with which the drama is propelled forward a quarter-of-a-century earlier. Arguably the earlier version requires a wider range of vocal skills. Amelia’s aria in Act One ends with a brilliant cabaletta that demands skittering staccatos from the soprano, shortly followed by a rather more progressive but still bravura final section of the lovers’ duet.

The scene celebrating the anniversary of Boccanegra’s coronation was replaced by the Council Chamber Scene in the revision and it is understandable that scholars, critics and audiences should regret the absence of the supreme humanist idealism embodied in the Doge’s great address, not to mention the music in which it is clothed. Amelia’s sudden appearance in the 1857 scene also provokes in the fragmentary responses of those performing what may seem to be an embarrassing use of the ‘ensemble of surprise’ convention familiar from opera buffa. The concertato which ends the Act is, however, a fine piece of work, containing Amelia’s account of her abduction and, in the writing for each of the other characters, clear differentiation of their feelings. If the earlier ‘party’ music is primitive, the contrapuntal writing for the chorus in the final pages of the scene is to be admired.

I warmed up for this Chelsea Opera performance by listening to a performance by The Royal Opera at the same venue in 1995. This was strongly cast, with Amanda Roocroft rising to lyrical heights and José Cura, sounding like a true lyrico-spinto tenor, dominant in the role of Gabriele. The emotional impact of his searing singing cannot avoid provoking regret at the subsequent downward direction of his career. The interpreters of the two lower-voiced leading male roles were Anthony Michaels-Moore and Alistair Miles, first-class singers both.

This Chelsea performance, though none of the singers was less than worthy, was not as well cast. When the role of the Doge himself has shortcomings either vocal or dramatic the work is inadequately served. Jeffrey Black, once a Covent Garden Figaro, is now moving into the dramatic baritone Fach and he displayed both vocal stamina and emotional commitment. The voice itself has lost focus, however. Here the tone lacked a solid centre and Black had to strain to maintain a reliable line. The 1857 version of the final section of the Act One duet “Figlia a tal nome palpito” gives more weight to the top Es and Fs and he was palpably uncomfortable in that area. So a viable impersonation was frustratingly blurred.

Black might well have been swapped with Mark Holland, whose Paolo was large in vocal presence. His tone was firmly anchored, and characterisation supported by excellent delivery of the text. Paolo dominates the first act: Simone has to be inveigled into becoming a candidate for Doge with the promise of Maria’s hand and the electorate manipulated into supporting him. Holland acted with conviction and transparency. Equally vivid was his scheming in Act Two with Fiesco and Gabriele. If his attraction to Amelia was only lightly sketched in, to expand his motivation, that is an element not thoroughly established by the composer. To see him in the self-condemnation of the Council Chamber Scene would be an inviting prospect.

Mark Beesley sang Fiesco’s music with accuracy and discipline. Unfortunately the role needs the vocal splendour of a Kipnis (recorded) or a Christoff (the latter appeared in the role unforgettably at Covent Garden in the 1970s) or, among the vocal heavyweights of today, Roberto Scandiuzzi or Ferruccio Furlanetto. Beesley resembled an impeccable civil servant, punctilious, vocally secure with top notes kept judiciously covered and keeping his end up dramatically in this company but was lacking a commanding presence.

Peter Auty confirmed the good impression he made in the spinto role of Maurizio in Chelsea Opera Group’s last concert. His no-holds-barred approach suited the character of the hot-headed Gabriele (the least altered of the principals between the two versions). From the passionate manner of his first appearance, heart was firmly worn on sleeve, whichever motivation was involved, filial, romantic or political. Auty’s Gabriele jumped to damning conclusions and launched accusations in inverse proportion to his knowledge of the facts. His remorse in “Perdon, perdon, Amelia” had the same level of intensity. In his aria, where, unusually, the fast and tempestuous section precedes the lyrical, I feared he was forcing his voice in the former, only to be reassured by a secure alternation of head and chest tone in the closing section of “Cielo pietoso, rendila”. His career holds high promise in the spinto repertoire; one hopes he will learn to emote more selectively.

In casting Elizabeth Woods as Amelia Chelsea Opera was definitely not putting like with like. In her opening aria she offered angelic tone in the projection of a guileless character and admirable musicianship, with the cadenza warm but not showy. The cabaletta previously mentioned was handled with discrimination, with the excitement reserved for the cadences. In the following duet with Gabriele she was cool and controlled, allowing him to take the lead in the rather old-fashioned stretta. She was not short of power and could release a potent forte at moments of strong emotion but equally there were moments when she adopted a delightful subito piano, such as when thinking of the old woman who had sheltered her as an orphan. I detected a lack of weight in the lower reaches of the voice but saw signs of a potentially authoritative stage presence in her sparing but communicative use of posture and facial expression.

The Chelsea Opera Group Chorus contains a core of stalwart choristers. The ladies emitted some rather sour sounds in the ‘Festival’ scene but had regained sweetness for the bridal chorus. The men produced a prodigious volume at times and negotiated the awkward interjections in the fast-moving, developing scenes successfully, if narrowly.

Tecwyn Evans put across this as a cruder, brasher score than its successor and drew thunderous playing from the Orchestra in the Act One finale. He inspired confidence in directing ensemble passages and the end of the opera was beautifully structured dynamically. The greater subtlety of Verdi’s invention six years on from “Rigoletto” was also acknowledged: of the felicitous instrumental effects I must mention the balance between soft violins and marcato cellos in Amelia’s aria and the wind solos in her duet with the Doge.

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