Lučić (center) as Boccanegra in Tcherniakov's staging at Bayerische Staatsoper
© Wilfried Hösl 2013
It was with some trepidation that I attended director Dmitri Tcherniakov's new staging of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a coproduction with English National Opera, where it had its premiere in 2011. It arrived at Munich's Nationaltheater on June 9. I needn't have worried. The Moscow-born Tcherniakov, now forty-three, has been known to create his own story line by contradicting the music. What has he done to Verdi's Simon? Nothing short of making it into an unforgettable evening that mixes crushing dramatic intensity with an overwhelming sense of humanity. How did he accomplish this feat? Quite simply by reading the text and letting the music's emotional content determine the onstage action. Even when he goes out on a limb — by questioning Amelia's identity as Boccanegra's lost daughter — Tcherniakov does so with support from the libretto. This is, however, not merely a staged libretto. The political, moral, emotional and psychological implications of every line and every character have been translated vividly onto the stage.
The story is updated, the Prologue taking place in Genoa in what seems to be the 1950s. (The sets are by Tcherniakov and the costumes by Elena Zaytseva.) We are outside a bar on the "Piazza Fiesco." Inside, politicians of the plebeian class are waiting for their votes to be bought. Outside, sitting in a vintage automobile, are Paolo, that master of behind-the-scenes politics, and a young, Tony Soprano-like Simon, unkempt of hair and roughly outfitted. Small details abound. Fiesco's heartrending expression of grief, the emptying of everything in his pockets, is an example of Tcherniakov's genius and a piece of staging that cuts to the soul. The scene reaches its climax with Simon carrying the dead body of his Maria, a wreath of garlands in her flowing black hair, onto the Plaza — only to be declared Doge of Genoa the next moment. The new Doge, obliviously surrounded by paid and bribed supporters, is frozen in the center of the group, an Edvard Munch-like silent scream contorting his face. How this final tableau of the Piazza slowly reduces itself in scale before one's eyes, ending up as a painting on the wall of the Grimaldi apartment, is a bit of unfathomable stage magic.
Twenty-five years later, the Council Chamber is a modern assembly room bereft of pomp. We recognize the protesting folk from today's troubled world. The hotheaded Gabriele is, until his wedding, costumed in leather motorcycle garb. There are, of course, some textual inconsistencies, but these are mere trifles when weighed against the wealth of understanding that Tcherniakov has brought to the story. One might miss the traditional trappings, but one is too much caught up in the drama to mourn the loss. In the finale, the dying Boccanegra loosens the black hair of Amelia, garlands her head with a wreath of white flowers, and she becomes, in an unbelievably emotional moment, the image of the dead Maria. There were few dry eyes in the audience.
Željko Lučić sang an astounding Simon. His voice, purposely youthfully raw at the beginning, evolved into one of supreme beauty and intense expression. The power of his office was reflected through vocal power, but the Doge's humanity shone through every phrase. A superb actress, Kristine Opolais (Amelia) showed a full-blooded voice of exceptional range. When she adds a bit more subtlety, her interpretation will approach perfection. Vitalij Kowaljow sang a stunning Fiesco, his dark timbre enhanced by admirable strength. Paolo Albiani, definitely a major character in this interpretation, was superbly sung and acted by Levente Molnár. Stefano Secco, the only Italian in the cast, was a fiery Gabriele Adorno. There is hardly an opera in today's repertoire with more humanity than Simon Boccanegra, and conductor Bertrand de Billy plumbed the emotional depths of the work from the first note of the Prologue. The conductor not only drew exquisite playing from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra but achieved consummate delicacy and refinement. The chorus (under Sören Eckhoff), a major factor in the work, excelled.
JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.