Concert performances can be just as seductive as fully-staged interpretations: this is what the Chelsea Opera Group demonstrated once again with their by no means perfect - but in many ways exemplary - reading of Simon Boccanegra, in their latest London appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Faithful to the spirit of research that characterizes all their projects, on this occasion the COG decided to bring to the stage the original 1857 version of Verdi's opera. It was Francesco Maria Piave who conceived the libretto of this Boccanegra, which was at the time problematic for audiences; many years later Arrigo Boito revised it, while Verdi questioned and then re-elaborated his original intuitions.
In this COG performance, Jeffrey Black portrayed with ease both the private and the political torments of Simon Boccanegra, former corsair and first Doge of Genoa. Great nobility graced each moment of his performance: he built a meditative and regal Boccanegra, and through him the maritime tones of the opera came to the surface. Yet, his wide vibrato was at times distracting and occasionally brought his melodic line out of focus.
The vividness of Black's interpretation was outstanding, considering he wasn't provided with a costume or staging. His character's slow enfeeblement after being poisoned stunned me as almost worryingly real: his bodily portrayal of the dying Doge was painful, while his timbre now remained clear and expressive in showing his moral nobility and acceptance of his fate.
In counterpoint with Black's imposing majesty, Peter Auty and Elizabeth Woods were radiant as the two younger and more energetic co-protagonists. Auty brought to life a consistent Adorno: through elegantly traced vocal lines, he gave a fiery, impulsive and yet judicious characterization. In his stormy 'Sento avvampar', oscillating passions came across vividly, from a roaring oath of revenge against Boccanegra - whom he believes to be a contestant for Amelia's affections - into tremendous grief for not allowing himself ever to be rejoined with his beloved, should she prove to be unfaithful. This rapid outburst of emotion was conveyed through perfect vocal realization - which earned Auty the loudest applause of the evening.
As for Elizabeth Woods, it is hard to provide a technical commentary to her nigh-on-perfect performance. Her Amelia was persuasive and vigorous, showing no sign of reticence - neither vocally nor in her dramatic intentions. And yet, her powerful depiction did not destroy the gracefulness of her Amelia. In addition, she did not fail to propose her character as central to the narrative. In particular when, in Act II, Adorno begs her to confess the truth about her love, Woods' vocal and dramatic response was outstanding and secure: it seemed impossible not to be moved by her protest 'Sgombra dall'alma il dubbio' ('Banish doubt from your soul').
The combination of these three impressively taken roles was made even more complete by the presence of the outstanding Mark Holland, who gave life to a truly looming Paolo Albiani. His 'Tu rifiuti?' ('You refuse?') was a masterpiece in itself: incredulity and hesitation resounded unmistakably in his voice at Fiesco's refusal to act against their common opponent Boccanegra. David Stout's Pietro also offered a fine portrayal of the Genoese popular leader.
Mark Beesley was a less convincing Fiesco, more for his uncertain bass tone than for his dramatic engagement. Yet, he was the protagonist, together with Auty's Adorno, of a scene excluded and replaced in the revised Boccanegra, which came across as a powerful moment in the COG's interpretation. This scene takes place at the end of Act I: once Adorno has informed Fiesco of his intention to marry Amelia - despite her humble origins - the two men curse Boccanegra in a gloomy duet. Although Beesley showed some vocal uncertainty in this situation, the COG's interpretation of this scene proved to be emotionally engaging, with sinister trumpet rattles dialoguing with the two dark male voices.
I was impressed by Tecwyn Evans' passionate reading of the score and his ability to inspire his musicians was evident in his communication with them. Although the pit did not always respond with the necessary refinement, and occasional defects were perceptible, there were nonetheless moments of fine marriage in the dialogue between voices and orchestra. One of the most memorable moments was in Act I: the suavity of the duet between Adorno and Amelia ('Ripara i tuoi pensieri al porto dell'amore', 'Shelter your thoughts in the harbour of love') was enhanced by the delicate contribution of the wonderful wind and brass.
The Chorus lacked the refinement that characterized the soloists. Fierce and convincing in the full orchestra sections, they showed weaknesses in a cappella numbers or when accents were clearly perceptible. Yet, it would be unfair not to add that the Chorus' fire and emotional commitment came across as second to none.
What made this performance a consistent one, in spite of disparities in the musical rendition, was a distinctive articulation of climaxes. If timbric chiaroscuri were not very subtle in the orchestral rendition, lots of passionate dynamics enriched this Boccanegra that, in its primitive form, suffered from lack of a tension in the first act finale. It is true that the absence of the Council Chamber scene, which Verdi added only in the 1881 version, drastically affects the first act - both in terms of the action and of the characterization of the title role. Yet, the COG did not fail to exploit all the dramatic nuance of this opera, including the more traditional concertato finale that concludes the 1857 Act I. Both this scene, and the whole second act, were performed with such an increasing intensity that dramatic intentions were successful despite the lack of a decisively dramatic section.
This latest COG venture was characterized by some truly outstanding vocal performances, and by a poignant commitment to Verdi's work in its rarer version. Even when the musical realization wasn't perfect, the engagement with the opera was clear. Were it possible, I would certainly repeat the experience of the Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of Simon Boccanegra.
Photos: Peter Auty; Elizabeth Woods.