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Simon Boccanegra (Royal Opera House)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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So absorbing is Simon Boccanegra that it's easy to forget we're watching an opera. Verdi's moving tale of paternity and politics is a remarkable fusion of music and drama, and it hurtles forward with extraordinary economy. Every character is intriguing and well-rounded, the action rarely pauses (there are very few formal arias) and an entire quarter-century elapses between the Prologue and Act One.

Boccanegra himself, the corsair-turned-Doge of Genoa, is portrayed with all the musicality and Italianate histrionics of a Tito Gobbi by the all-American Thomas Hampson. The role's taxing vocal range holds no terrors for the august baritone: his voice is in prime condition and he invested the eponymous hero with the ideal blend of gravitas, vulnerability and inner strength.

In fact all four of the great male roles in the opera are dazzlingly taken in this latest revival of Elijah Moshinsky's unfussy production. As house débuts go, the Adorno of tenor Russell Thomas is an especial triumph: the young American has a ringing timbre that is as attractive as it is powerful, and his searing impact as the impetuous nobleman will linger long in the memory. There may be a small question mark over his piano quality, but the rest is pure gold and the prospect of hearing him in years to come singing roles like Florestan or Otello provokes tingles.

Hampson's fellow-baritone Dimitri Platanias, whose Rigoletto last year had struck me as dramatically stolid, was magnetic as the turncoat Paolo, a man eaten away by jealousy and resentment. Platanias floated some heavenly notes above the water-borne strings that open the opera before descending fiercely, two hours later, into a hell of the character's own making. Startling stuff. Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, whose moral arc travels in the opposite direction to that of Paolo, makes his second back-to-back Verdi appearance of the season following a memorable Philip II in Don Carlo and his compassionate, committed portrayal of Amelia's long-lost grandfather makes clear sense of a complex role.

The one female role of note, Boccanegra's daughter Amelia, is robustly sung by Hibla Gerzmava. Faint praise? If so, it's because she finds herself in such a high order of company. Gerzmava's first scene with Hampson was light on expressive nuance and the grain of her vibrato, though not in itself unattractive, sat uneasily alongside the voices of her male colleagues in the opera's great ensembles. Yet the Russian soprano more than held her place, and her ability to convey Amelia's elation at happy revelations was enchanting.

The ever-present sea was depicted with breathtaking beauty by Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. A shoreline shimmer marked the opera's brief Preludio, while at the start of Act One the most delicate of ripples on piccolo and flute reminded us that the Ligurian Sea, scene of Boccanegra's sea battles, was never far away. Indeed, on a night of exceptional performances perhaps the greatest glory of all was the opulent, uniquely Verdian string sound that Pappano drew from his players.

This is a charmed revival, and a night in operatic heaven.