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Simon Boccanegra (tour - Norwich, Theatre Royal)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Directors – not to mention designers – can find that updating the action of plays and operas is a perilous undertaking. There have been some successes; there are many more failures. It can be that such action presumes that an audience is less intelligent than it really is.

Alright, Simon Boccanegra is not one of the most popular of Verdi's operas – nor does it have the simplest plot but, at any rate in the 1881 revision, it does have some of the composer's great hallmarks, including lyrical father-daughter duets and baritone-bass confrontations. Director James Conway keeps us in Genoa but shifts the action from the mid-14th to the mid-20th century. We're in the aftermath of the Second World War with former partisans at odd with the wealthier members of the community who (perhaps) still hanker after Mussolini's brand of fascism.

Accepting this (for my money, unnecessary) updating, we do have some extremely good performances. Although it was announced that he was suffering from a cold, Craig Smith makes Boccanegra into a real human-being with fine singing as well as characterisation. The Act One Scene One duet with Elizabeth Llewellyn's Amelia is particularly effective. Llewellyn has a strong technique allied to lyricism and acting ability; here is an Aida in the making, not to mention sundry other Amelias.

Since I saw his Don Pasquale a year or so ago, Keel Watson has developed into something of a Lablache personality. "Il lacerato spirito" could have more legato, but the following duet with Boccanegra and "Piango, perché mi parla" in the last act both are excellent. Watson has the right degree of snarl for his exchanges with Grqnt Doyle's apparatchik of a Paolo. Charne Rochford is a tenor to watch, though his approach could acquire greater subtlety; "O inferno! Amelia qui!" was certainly passionate but not really smooth.

Carlos del Cueto alternates as conductor and gives the orchestra pace to send the sound of water – this is after all an opera set by the side of the sea, from which Boccanegra has made a living and which carries opponents of the doge into exile – Venice's great rival. The surtitles are something of a mixed blessing, the Council Chamber scene reference to Petrarch sits oddly beside the earlier description of Boccanegra as a black marketeer. The designer is Samal Blak.


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