In a Royal Opera season that's had its share of withdrawals and replacements, this revival of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra hasn't escaped. Several months ago it was announced that Nina Stemme, who was to have played Amelia, had decided not to add the role to her repertoire and shortly before it opened, we were informed that the revival's Fiesco, Orlin Anastassov, was unable to sing due to ill-health. In the end, it was the two replacements that threatened to steal the show in an ensemble, which although not without faults, came together to produce a deeply satisfying performance of Verdi's brooding masterpiece.
It's surprising that Stemme's replacement, Anja Harteros, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1999, has had to wait this long for her Royal Opera House debut. She is a class act, the voice radiant and cleanly produced across the range, and audiences in London can be glad that circumstances have contrived to move forward an overdue debut. While Ferruccio Furlanetto is already singing Phillip II in this summer's new production of Don Carlo, his appearance here as Anastassov's replacement showed in an instant why he's among the world's leading Verdi basses (read our review of his performance as Silva in the Met's recent Ernani here). It also begs the question as to why London has been denied the opportunity to hear him in these meatier Verdi roles for so long (recent appearances have been in the secondary roles of Count Walter in Luisa Millar and Padre Guardiano in La Forza del destino). Anastassov is a fine singer but I simply can't imagine him, when he returns to the production, lording over the drama with such a magnetic and authoritative presence as Furlanetto. From his first entrance, with an imposing and moving 'Il lacerato in spirito' sung in a voice dark, voluminous and pleasingly worn by experience, to his final pronouncement of Simon's death, he commanded the stage at every turn.
It was with Fiesco's first appearance, too, that the conducting of John Eliot Gardiner hit its stride. The first part of the Prologue had been a little shaky, with Marco Vratogna's Paolo (another ROH debut) and Jette Parker Young Artist Krzysztof Szumanski (Pietro) failing to command our attention as they set the plot's heavy machinery in motion. On the whole, though, Gardiner led a very well paced and finely nuanced account of the score. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was not always ideally tidy and the delicate introduction and accompaniment to Amelia's 'Come in quest'ora bruna' didn't come off as well as it might have, a tension between pit and stage hampering the rubato and giving a slight impression of dragging. However, Gardiner excelled in exploring the dark corners which abound in Verdi's score and provided flexible but carefully controlled support to his cast. The big crowd scenes and ensembles were also cannily paced, with the Royal Opera Chorus in fine voice.
Ian Judge's production was created a decade ago for performances of the the original 1857 version of the opera. One can't help but wonder whether the choice to opt then for a single set and quick scene changes, effected by the shifting of furniture and other sundries, was influenced by the possibility of it being used for revivals of the revised 1881 version. In the event, accommodating the great council chamber scene (added in Verdi's revision) is something that seems to have been managed without too many headaches.
In the production, the drama's historical context is demonstrated by the action seemingly having been shoe-horned in between the canvass and frame of a contemporary painting of the port of Genoa. Parts of a picture frame form a new proscenium while the painting itself, set askew with an imposing doorframe set inside it, forms the backdrop. It's a nice image and although I was unsure about the transition between Prologue and First Act, where the crowd holding Boccanegra aloft slowly dissipates to reveal Amelia hiding within them, it was beneficial for the pace of the drama not to be held up by scene changes. The production itself, with lighting designs by Nigel Levings, is highly adept at providing a generalised, gloomy back-drop for dark political machinations but some of the more specific gestures – a golden ship dangling from the ceiling in the council chamber scene suddenly going askew as the mob storms in, and the scenery shifting to reveal a glimpse of sea at Boccanegra's arrival in the final scene – seemed redundant.
The title role of this opera is one of the most demanding in the repertoire, requiring a singer with an innate acting ability and a voice which is as commanding as it is seductive, able to declaim with authority and to spin a long, Verdian line. Lucio Gallo was convincing dramatically, proving an imposing presence in his many scenes. There were times, though, when vocally he seemed ill-at-ease; occasionally, with his dry, monochromatic tone and unreliable intonation, he even sounded provincial. However, Gallo is a vastly experienced artist and produced a full portrayal of the character, rising to a noble and moving final scene. As Adorno, Marcus Haddock showed no such vocal insecurities. His tenor is relatively dark and baritonal all through its range and he sang this difficult role with ease. However, for all its security, it's a voice that remains strangely unseductive, never fully opening up at the top or providing the thrills it promises. Dramatically, too, his characterisation seemed too often simply over-eager and nervous.
As the link between Boccanegra and Adorno, Harteros's Amelia was consistently impressive. The voice initially comes across as being on the lighter side of lyrical, but at several stages it showed itself to have considerable heft, and it was employed with intelligence and control (the exposed trill and cadence on 'pace' at the end of the great ensemble in the council chamber was particularly impressive).
After failing to make an impression in the Prologue, Marco Vratogna's Paolo looked wonderfully thuggish and sinister but never really came across vocally as threateningly as one would hope; his brief scene at the beginning of Act Two failed to send a shiver down the spine.
Most of the focus this summer will be on the Royal Opera's new production of Don Carlo so it might be easy for this revival of Simon Boccanegra to slip under the radar. The opera itself, despite containing some of Verdi's most inspired, subtle and nuanced writing, remains far from a popular favourite and this revival lacks big names. However, under Gardiner's baton, the cast comes together wonderfully so that the overall impression transcends any individual drawbacks. What comes across more than anything is what a unique masterpiece this opera is. There's talk of the next revival starring Placido Domingo as Boccanegra – he sang Adorno in 1997 when this production was new. However, with a well integrated if less stellar cast, it's definitely worth catching this time round.
It has now been announced that Orlin Anastassov has withdrawn from the complete run of Simon Boccanegra. The role of Fiesco will be sung again by Ferruccio Furlanetto on 10, 13, 16 & 19 May and by Roberto Scandiuzzi on 22 and 24 May.
By Hugo Shirley