Arts review: Simon Boccanegra can’t overcome its inherent problems

Fine singing and impressive sets can’t disguise the weakness of the music or the muddled plot of one of Verdi’s lesser works

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 4:17pm

Simon Boccanegra

Teatro Regio Torino

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Reviewed: February 26

The Western opera in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival features one of Italy’s most historic companies, Teatro Regio Torino, founded in 1740, in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The singing was spectacular and drew an ovation at the end, although the production failed to surmount the problems posed by one of the composer’s weaker works.

Simon Boccanegra, a former pirate, is elected Doge of Genoa. The woman he loves is the daughter of his bitter enemy, Jacopo. She dies, then his own daughter, Maria, disappears. Years later a joyous reunion takes place and she learns her true identity.

While Simon strives for peace and unity between Genoa and its neighbours, his enemies are plotting against him. Maria’s lover Gabriele attempts to assassinate him then relents when he learns that he is Maria’s father. However, Simon’s evil henchman Paolo has already poisoned him and Simon dies after reconciling with Jacopo and proclaiming Gabriele the new Doge.

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The muddled plot lacks the emotional focus needed to make this kind of melodrama work. Constantly stopping and starting, it jumps around between characters and fails to flow. The biggest handicap is that it also lacks great music – much of the score is lacklustre, with neither the irresistible tunes of Rigoletto nor the dark power of Otello.

Roberto Abbado’s slow-paced conducting did little to help, exposing the flaws in the music rather than disguising them. This is an opera that cries out for directorial creativity – for example, by bringing out its political subtext (Verdi was a fervent advocate of a united Italy, a cause Simon clearly represents) – but Sylvano Bussotti’s 1979 production is resolutely old school.

The performers simply stand still and sing – vocally they’re expressive, visually they’re not – and costumes are stock medieval. Only the sets stand out, particularly the stunning effect of a moving sea at the back of the stage.

The singing was uniformly impressive. In an opera that honours baritones and basses, Roberto Frontali’s moving Simon, Michele Pertusi’s noble Jacopo and Gevorg Hakobyan’s malevolent Paolo brought splendid depth and power to their singing.

The lone tenor, Giorgio Berrugi, was an ardent Gabriele, with a lovely clear, bright tone. As Maria, soprano Erika Grimaldi sang strongly, if with a little too much vibrato.