Boccanegra James Hancock
Pauolo Dominic Barrand
Pietro Kevin McRae
Fiesco Ronald Nairn
Amelia Scheherazade Pesantè
Adorno Gediminas Varna
Amelias maid Alice Woodbridge
Captain Glen Tweedie
Chorus and Orchestra of Opera/UK
Tim Heath Director
Cleo Pettit Sets
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 10 October, 2006
Venue: UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, London, WC1
On Verdi’s actual birthday (he would have been 193), John Mullis’s Opera/UK officially opened its second season with “Simon Boccanegra” at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, alternating with Lehár’s “The Merry Widow”.
Committed to non-concept led productions, the company has produced a plain, but eminently workable production under director Tim Heath, save for a rather confusing prologue played in black and so far forward that one feared for the chorus who might have toppled into the pit (especially during their rather superfluous dancing exit). The standard Boito-assisted revision is used, with surtitles provided by Covent Garden.
Cleo Pettit’s set, with its checked floor and robust balcony at the back, once unveiled, managed to accommodate the various Genoese scenes, while the costumes were of Verdi’s time (Heath at pains to write in the programme about the inspiration Verdi may have taken from Garibaldi) rather than the historical era of Boccanegra. Unfortunately that meant Amelia’s costume is a hooped dress (think Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”), which was rather too voluminous for Scheherazade Pesanté to negotiate the set.
All of this might not have mattered had Pesantè’s singing carried the day. Unfortunately I am duty bound to say that the opposite was true: the flouncing dress (made to look like the worst type of synthetic ice-cream cone when covered with wedding garb for the final scene) at least allowed for some comic value while attempting to find some respite from her voice, which rarely equated with Verdi’s vocal lines and when they did approximate to them were given a grating tone. An exotic name she may have, but this was more a night of 1001 squalls than tales from 1001 nights. So far she has ‘starred’ as Tosca and both directed and sung in “L’amor brujo” (in Cardiff on 30 and 31 October) for Opera/UK, so one fears she may be part of the package, but on this showing, Pesantè should not be singing at all, especially as director Tim Heath was unable to encourage any real acting from her. I’m sure any of the sopranos in the chorus would be happy to try the role.
“Simon Boccanegra” without a competent Amelia is hamstrung, but all credit to the rest of the cast who, for the most part, trenchantly stuck to their own guns, the one unfortunate exception being Gadiminas Varna’s Adorno, who tended also to the hectoring style.
The lower voices fared the best, especially Dominic Barrand’s Paolo, the turncoat ‘king-maker,’ relishing his Machiavellian role and Ronald Nairn’s Fiesco, even though his aged self was less successful in appearance than his 25-year-younger self in the Prologue. The opposite was true of James Hancock’s Boccanegra, who looked much more convincing after the Prologue. The duet between Fiesco and Boccanegra was particularly moving, aided and abetted by Derek Carden’s sensitive conducting.
The orchestra is per force small – four first violins, three seconds, two violas, two cellos and single bass, etc. – but, apart from the occasional tricky Verdian phrase where more body of sound is really needed, there was some extremely fine playing from the pit.
Most striking of all was James Hancock as Boccanegra, stepping in at short notice for the originally announced Loïc Guguen. Hancock made Boccanegra a living, believable character, with pleasing voice and committed delivery.
Despite the rather too-obvious black hole at the centre of this production, Opera/UK is to be commended for its commitment and one wishes the company success in the future.