Simon Boccanegra (original 1857 version)

Reviewer's Rating

Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ is, one might think, familiar fare. However, we are used to hearing the version from 1881, which the composer rewrote substantially in his later style, with both fresh material and much more complex orchestration that anticipates, and is in some ways a ‘dry run’ for ‘Otello.’ Opera Rara, under the editorship of Roger Parker, now return us via a new critical edition to the first version from 1857 – bold, simpler, dramatically incisive Verdi that still marks a fresh stylistic departure from the famous operas that had cemented his reputation in the early 1850s.

This is an opera with a sombre ‘tinto’ – dark colours in the orchestra, only one female voice, a brooding atmosphere, and memorable depictions of the sea. There are few set-piece arias, and much of the action involves declamatory music framing a wide range of characters. But the opera’s reputation for lacking melodies is quite undeserved, as one lucid and compelling scene unfolds memorably after another.

The plot has as many twists and turns as the Hampton Court Maze: suffice to say that the setting is in medieval Genoa, where successful pirate Boccanegra suddenly finds himself elevated to rulership and a myriad of ravelled up problems. As so often in Verdi, there is a contrast between public success and private misery, and a father and daughter relationship is at the heart of it with a vendetta hovering over all. A series of events enacted in the prologue tees up a tragedy of errors in the following three acts set years later; but for once at least the heroine is not the chief victim.

The fact this concert performance is the culmination of a recording process is very much to the advantage of the evening. Careful placement of the chorus and off-stage band ensures credible sound effects, and the use of an authentic cimbasso (bass trombone) rather than tuba adds extra bite to the orchestral forces. The Halle have been living with this work for some weeks, and thus play with unanimous focus and attention to dynamics, entirely responsive to the meticulous directions of Mark Elder, who sets a brisk pace and builds the drama with a natural sense of where the climax in each scene should be. It was a good decision to bring in the Chorus of Opera North to portray the citizens of Genoa, and to have them located on the stage at the centre of the action – their energy, dynamic delicacy, and attack were rightly accorded a special accolade at the end of the evening.

The young cast are very talented and fully equal to the many challenges of this austere and bleak work. Although this is not a staged performance, each of them acts their roles more than plausibly within the gestural range possible on the concert platform. German Enrique Alcantara only joined the cast at a late stage, but presents the title role with the divided sense of natural authority and crippling emotional pressures that it requires. He is particularly effective in the final act as the poison burns through his veins both figuratively and literally. As the orphan, Amelia, Eri Nakamura is technically assured and warmly empathetic, though she is occasionally swamped by the orchestra in the loudest concerted passages. As her lover, Gabriele, Ivan Ayon-Rivas carries the main tenor role with assurance through some very demanding music; and David Shipley, William Thomas, Sergio Vitale all acquit themselves well in the roles of the three courtiers who for different reasons seek to bring Boccanegra down and gain their political and personal revenge. What stands out though in the memory is just how well the voices blend and contend in a work which does not seek to enthrone solo display.

It is good to know that a recording of this fine ensemble will be forthcoming on the Opera Rara label, and I would thoroughly recommend it on the basis of this evening. It is hard to see how a better case could be made for this version of the opera. As Mark Elder said in his introductory talk: ‘There are still more musical theatre works by Verdi in regular performance than by any other composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber not excluded.’ So fresh revelations about his oeuvre are central not merely to Verdi specialists, but to opera performance and history as a whole.

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Francesco Piave

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Halle Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North

Cast: German Enrique Alcantara, Ivan Ayon-Rivas, Eri Nakamura, David Shipley, William Thomas, Sergio Vitale

Photo Credit: David Hughes

18th April 2024

2 hrs 30 mins with interval