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Simon Boccanegra

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Edward Gardner, English National Opera’s dynamic young Music Director (though at 37 he must be growing weary of the ‘young’ epithet), proves his mettle as a conductor of Verdi with this orchestrally lustrous reading of Simon Boccanegra. It may be the composer’s most intricate score – it’s certainly his most symphonically textured – yet close your eyes and the sound that emanates from the Coliseum pit is that of a world-class orchestra being guided by the sure hand of a master.

There are other reasons to close one’s eyes during this production of a tale whose 25-year span covers three generations of internecine strife, both filial and political. The young Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov updates the story, muddies the location and stretches the timescale so that the Prologue unfolds in a Hopper-esque 1960s precinct , after which all that follows is grey-chic present day. (That would make our young heroine Amelia about 50, but let that pass; literalism is not the order of the day here.)

Tcherniakov’s concept is properly controversial. Now, at ENO in recent times that term has sometimes been used as a euphemism for ‘indefensible tosh’, but here at least is a production that tries to do something original with a labyrinthine operatic saga. If it fails, it does so honourably. Having spent the entire evening resisting its charms, whose distractions range from the trivial (cars didn’t have hazard lights in the 1960s) to the troubling (what is the significance of Boccanegra’s failure either to drink the poison or to drop down dead?), I can still admire the director’s ambition to burrow under the opera’s outer shell and illuminate it from within.

Oh, how it clunks though. Passages of tedium, chief among them the fidget-inducing scene changes, alternate with episodes of unintentional mirth that evoke fond memories of Fawlty Towers, Father Ted and, during an hilarious climax to the Prologue, Joe Orton’s Loot. I understand that Tcherniakov is a controlling director; this may explain why no-one took him aside and quietly explained that manic fist-shaking, chair-throwing and wobbly-door-kicking are beloved aspects of Britain’s sitcom tradition, but not quite the ticket for a serious opera.

As Boccanegra, Bruno Caproni’s dignity is tested in a Prologue that requires him to sprawl like a yob on a car bonnet, while later on his bespectacled adult persona has little opportunity to characterise Verdi’s many-hued emotional palette. His nemesis, the Patrician Fiesco (an imposing Brindley Sherratt) fares better dramatically, and at a vocal level the confrontations between this pair are among the evening’s strengths. Overall, though, directorial oddities are so commonplace that we no longer question why Peter Auty’s well-sung Adorno should be clad in biker leathers, nor worry that Boccanegra’s goth daughter Amelia (Rena Harms) so readily sheds her self-loathing to become a devoted daddy’s girl – but then refuses to embrace her dying father when he asks. Is he perhaps not her father after all? Or is he already dead? Who knows?

Finn Ross, the must-hire video designer at ENO this season, contributes a couple of knockout visual effects that almost compensate for the drabness of Tcherniakov’s own set designs. I’m tempted to say they’re worth the price of admission alone, but that might be pushing it.

- Mark Valencia


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