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Dramatic and Responsive

Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'
from Chelsea Opera Group,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


In April last year Chelsea Opera Group gave us a terrific performance of Verdi's first version of Macbeth. So it was, perhaps, inevitable that the group would look at one of Verdi's other operas which exists in more than one significantly different version, Simon Boccanegra. And on Sunday 8 June 2009 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall they performed Verdi's original 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra under the baton of Tecwyn Evans. Evans is a New Zealand born conductor who has recently become musical director of Graz Opera House.

Verdi's 1881 revision of Simon Boccanegra was as much a revision of the libretto as the music. From the very outset, Piave's libretto had come in for some considerable complaint. So when Verdi decided to revise it, it was with his potential new librettist, Arrigo Boito. Their revisions gave us the magnificent Council Chamber scene to close Act I, in addition to many smaller improvements to both to music and dramaturgy.

The 1857 Simon Boccanegra was the twenty first of Verdi's twenty eight operas, coming between Les vepres siciliennes and Un ballo in maschera. It was written at a time when Verdi was experimenting with change to his style and moving away from the ideas of grand opera. Whereas with Macbeth it is relatively easy to argue the case for listening to the first version as a genuinely independent work, with Simon Boccanegra the case is harder, as Verdi's revisions transformed an interesting, rather conventional opera into a masterpiece sui generis. It still has noticeable set pieces, but they are starting to be more completely integrated into the whole. It is perhaps significant that arias from Simon Boccanegra don't usually feature in the top ten Verdi arias lists.

An important feature of the opera is the distinctive dark-hued sound world which Verdi creates, both by using so many low voices and in his orchestration. From the opening of this performance it was clear that Tecwyn Evans had taken some care to ensure that the orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group was at home in Verdi's dark brown palate. The orchestra responded well to his direction, turning in some sophisticated and beautifully modulated playing instead of its usual brilliant tones. This was a great help in those passages where Verdi seems to have been wool-gathering, giving us routine tum-ti-tum rather than a more sophisticated response. This was especially true of the Act I finale, where Verdi seems to have responded to Piave's ballet, followed by Amelia's interruption and narration, with music of rather low inspiration.

Verdi uses a cast of six, of which three are baritones and one is a bass, and this helps to define the opera's sound world. Jeffery Black made an impressive début singing the title role for the first time; his biography informed us that his is currently making the transition to the heavier Verdi roles. Perhaps this is taking some sort of toll on his voice as he sang with noticeably tight tone and a significant vibrato; something which might be less obvious in the opera house but is rather notable when sitting in the fifth row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That said, Black sang Boccanegra with warm tones and obviously empathised with one of Verdi's most human creations. I would have liked a less generalised response to the words but there was no doubt about the care that this Boccanegra lavished on his daughter.

Boccanegra's great enemy, Jacopo Fiesco, was sung by Mark Beesley with fine strong tones and a good sense of line. Beesley pointed up Fiesco's ferocity without ever resorting to bluster, managing to convey the character's ramrod sense of nobility and pride. The encounters between Beesley and Black were coruscating.

Mark Holland played Paolo Albiani, the relatively minor character who, when thwarted by Boccanegra, turns on him and displays great capacity for evil. Holland was a revelation in Paolo's big scenes in the second half; Holland erupted with passion without ever compromising musicality or sense of line.

David Stout, a promising young baritone who has been making something of a name for himself, took the smaller role of Pietro (one of Paolo's co-conspirators). Whilst never getting a major moment, Stout impressed with his intelligence and grasp of Verdian style.

The one light moment in the opera is the appearance of Amelia, sung radiantly by Elizabeth Woods. Woods aptly conveyed something of Amelia's youth. She gave us some nice moments of Verdian cantilena besides being entirely at home in Amelia's more elaborate vocal moments. It must be admitted that at first I found her vibrato a little too intrusive, but I gradually warmed to her voice and was impressed by the control that she showed. One of the opera's glories is the developing relationship between Boccanegra and his daughter, and here Woods was profoundly touching in her duets with Black.

Amelia's love interest, Gabriele, was sung by Peter Auty, who had showed himself capable of providing a fine, Italianate line in Chelsea Opera Group's previous outing, Adriana Lecouvreur. Here he was equally impressive, bringing nobility and beauty of tone to Gabriele's solo utterances. He and Woods complemented each other aptly in their duets, providing much needed warmth in what is rather a grim evening.

The Chelsea Opera Group chorus were their usual enthusiastic selves, though it must be admitted that there were moments when a little less enthusiasm and a little more accuracy would have been welcome. That said, the chorus parts in these operas are not always the most rewarding things to sing.

Tecwyn Evans certainly got the best out of his performers. The soloists provided us with strong meat, giving a powerful account of the opera but the heroes of the evening, as ever, were the members of the orchestra.

The first version of Simon Boccanegra may not be the towering masterpiece that the revised version is, and I must confess that in the past I have found both versions of the opera to be rather grim. But Chelsea Opera Group gave a strong, dramatic and responsive performance full of incidental beauties, which almost had me convinced.

Copyright © 10 June 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK















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