Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

English National Opera

London Coliseum, 9 June 2011 3.5 stars

Bruno Caproni as Simon Boccanegra (Photo © Mike Hoban)The young Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov gets a certain sort of press: Enfant Térrible Courts Controversy is the usual autocue. His debut at ENO as both director and designer of this new Simon Boccanegra has inevitably been given its fair share of hype – but Tcherniakov's extensive and award-winning operatic credentials separate him from ENO's recent flirtations with bad boys (and girls) on temporary loan from other art forms.

His undeniably strong artistic vision ('the most exacting director I've ever worked with', says Brindley Sherratt in the programme book) is coupled with a wealth of experience. In places, the result pays off.

The opera's plot is notoriously knotted, with its 25-year fast-forward between Prologue and Act I. Tcherniakov supplies ticker-tape synopses before each scene, but doesn't seem to count the intervening years too carefully. We begin in the early 1960s (all trench coats and trilbies, with Paolo and Simon emerging from a pristine – if bafflingly vintage – motor car) and end up in an anonymous glass-and-steel take on the present day, 60s beige replaced by black, white and endless charcoal. The timewarp works brilliantly in Finn Ross's video designs: the Peter Auty as Adorno and Rena Harms as Amelia (Photo © Mike Hoban)Prologue ends with a freeze-frame, which then becomes a dated projection that shrinks rapidly to the size of a painting on the wall of the Grimaldi's hip, minimalist Act I residence.

Less convincing were some startling lapses in continuity: doors left open for no reason; doors that wouldn't open for one character but would for another; characters seated in the same well-lit room but apparently unable to see each other; minutes passing visibly on a working clock but scenes starting from a selection of apparently random times; ancient murder weapons (retro homicide, anyone?) discussed in the text but invisible onstage. In such an aggressively realist staging, the details begin to matter. At the other end of the believability spectrum, did the car's hazard lights really need to flash – in headachey counterpoint with the music – for the entire Prologue?

There was also a marked unevenness in the musical performance. In his role debut as Boccanegra, Bruno Caproni sounded muddy and unfocussed in the Prologue, although he improved significantly after swapping his leather jacket and whisky bottle for sober, office-ready Dogewear. It wasn't until the final act that he really hit his stride, becoming freer vocally and much more expressive.

As arch-baddie Paolo, Roland Wood took a similar trajectory: a disappointing first half gave way to a more tightly centred tone later on, as he gradually brought his wide vibrato under control. Rena Harms' Amelia (another role debut) and Peter Auty's Gabriele Adorno were also mixed. After a faltering start, Harms managed to sustain longer lines, her sweet upper register making up for lack of tone lower down. She was, alas, all too convincing as Tcherniakov's conception of Amelia-the-awkward-teenager (rather than the libretto's 25-year old): more varied colours – or simply a bigger voice – were needed. As her biker boyfriend, Auty managed to juggle helmet and romance with some success in Act I, offering brilliant high notes and a beautiful tone. But his light tenor was ill-suited to the role's later emotional complexities, and tuning problems emerged under the pressures of his Act II aria.

Brindely Sherratt as Fiesco (Photo © Mike Hoban)Much more consistent, indeed top of the pile vocally, was ENO stalwart Brindley Sherratt, whose Fiesco was powerful and fabulously resonant. Unusually sympathetic even in the Prologue (despite the dangerous, bathetic rhymes of James Fenton's translation), Sherratt was most poignant in the final act, particularly in heart-rending duet with the dying Boccanegra.

The evening's star turn was provided by the ENO Orchestra, on superb form under Music Director Edward Gardner.

The wonderful sound quality of the current ensemble was showcased in the pseudo-organ orchestration in Act I, while rich, brass-heavy textures and beautifully turned woodwind solos stood out elsewhere. Nothing controversial about the quality rising from the pit – but then controversy isn't everything.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Mike Hoban