On Thursday to the second and my second performance of Opera Australia’s revival of its 2000 production of Simon Boccanegra. Above is the state of the house just before (metaphorically speaking) curtain up. An usher described it to me as “a light house.”
Second time was even better than the first. Which is why the light house is such a shame.
Some of that was the performance (trivial example: the torches in the final scene worked properly; less trivial example, some dodgy entries were fixed up) but more of it was that I had disentangled the plot better.
This is notoriously complicated.
In the prologue, Paolo (Warwick Fyfe: I still miss fat Warwick a bit but as he doesn’t need to be funny it’s less of a loss in this role) schemes to make Boccanegra doge of Genoa. Boccanegra is not especially keen for this but is persuaded in the hope that the nobleman Fiesco, who has locked up in his palace his daughter, Maria(1), with whom Boccanegra has had a daughter, Maria(2), would not refuse Boccanegra as son-in-law once he became doge.
Unfortunately, Maria(1) has just died. Fiesco refuses to be reconciled to Boccanegra unless Boccanegra returns to him Maria(2). Boccanegra cannot do that because the old woman to whose care he had entrusted Maria(2) has died and the child cannot be found.
Flash forward 25 or so years to Act I. Boccanegra is still doge. He visits Amelia, daughter of the noble house of Grimaldi. All of the Grimaldis save Amelia have been exiled. Boccanegra offers to pardon them: his intent is to persuade her to marry Paolo.
But Amelia is no Grimaldi. The true Amelia died as an infant and Amelia was smuggled in as a foundling to prevent the family estates being forfeited by reason of the exile of the men of the family. Amelia is Maria(2)! She is not interested in marrying Paolo as she loves Diego Torres.
Boccanegra abruptly tells Paolo to forget his hopes of marrying her. He doesn’t offer any explanation, though that he was willing to give Paolo his enemy’s daughter but not his own would presumably not make things any better. Now Paolo, too, is his enemy.
In Act II, Boccanegra utters the words in the title to this post when, his throat burning, he takes a drink of water. You can take it, and he means it, as a version of “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
Dramatic irony: Paolo has poisoned the water. From this Boccanegra will eventually die, which basically takes up Act III.
There are intrigues, plots, counterplots, insurrections. As the booklet to the CD set I borrowed from the Con library puts it: Boccanegra is a good man who seeks peace among others who behave as though he were terrible and cruel. In the same booklet, William Mann describes the opera as “Verdi on Politics and Parenthood.”
The music is a mix of seething political drama, dark plotting, revelations and reconciliations and frequent invocation of nature, especially the sea: Genoa was a maritime state and Boccanegra a sailor. There are pregnant pauses (well measured by conductor Palumbo). The opera is maybe a bit short of big or even catchy “tunes.” But once I got a grasp of the drama I didn’t miss these and in context there are definitely a few ear-worms. Improbable though some twists and turns are, the opera is dramatic and ultimately moving.
I even warmed to the single set, though I still find the dress-up box business just a bit tiresome.
It’s a big sing, especially for Simon, sung in this case by Romanian (or, more exotically, Transylvanian) George Petean . Intriguingly, Petean’s (by my reckoning more than 20 years older) half-brother, Alexandru Agache, has also been a prominent Simon Boccanegra. Nor is this Petean’s first visit to Australia as he has come here before with Simone Young courtesy of his connexion as a singer at Hamburg.
Petean sang warmly and with great variety of tone and expression. The tessitura is a highish baritone but he was entirely comfortable with it. When the moment called for it, his voice cracked with tears. He also managed a very creditable stage fall on Simone’s death which drew an audible gasp from from the audience each time. That’s probably easier to do while you are still in real life relatively youthful, as Petean is. Maybe he’s still just a touch young for the part but we mightn’t get him here when he is older.
The scenes between Petean and Italian bass Giacomo Prestia as Fiesco were a highlight.
Now naturalised-Australian tenor Diego Torres has a somewhat penetrating sound but he also knows how to moderate it.
Natalie Aroyan as Amelia/Maria(2) wasn’t quite up to the level of those three. If I were more knowledgeable I would probably be able to put my finger on specific points but it was more that I was left imagining a slightly greater range of characterisation than I felt she was able to give which could have led to a more thrilling performance at certain points. I felt in particular that Torres could have been better with a stronger foil.
However, the whole was still deeply satisfying and in the last act you could feel the audience spellbound. I am very much looking forward to Saturday and my third attendance.
That will probably be my last, though the run is of 9 performances in all. I hope the houses improve: only the matinee appears from the Opera’s website to be really full.
Fortunately, Così and Carmen appear to be pretty well sold out for the balance of their runs.