Shadowy Psyche: Simon Boccanegra at the Opéra national de Paris

Verdi – Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra – Ludovic Tézier
Jacopo Fiesco – Mika Kares
Amelia Grimaldi – Maria Agresta
Gabriele Adorno – Francesco Demuro
Paolo Albiani – Nicola Alaimo
Pietro – Mikhail Timoshenko
Un capitano dei balestrieri – Cyrille Lovighi
Un’ancella di Amelia – Virginia Leva-Poncet

Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Fabio Luisi.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito

Opéra national de Paris-Bastille, Paris, France.  Friday, December 7th, 2018.

This new production of Simon Boccanegra, of which tonight was the eight performance in a run of ten, marks Calixto Bieito’s third collaboration with the Opéra national de Paris, following Reimann’s Lear and his well-travelled Carmen.  In this Boccanegra, Bieito actually deals quite expertly with the difficulties of working in the aircraft-hangar-dimensioned Opéra Bastille.  He confined most of the interaction between the principals to a narrow strip at the front of the stage, affording the cast a chance to be heard in this exceptionally voice-unfriendly acoustic, but also used the huge dimensions of the super-sized stage to create a visually and dramatically highly intelligent and cogent staging.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

Indeed, in common with Bieito’s recent Dresden Moses und Aron and the Zurich Poppea, what he gives us is a staging that magically amplifies the score’s nocturnal and autumnal tinta.  This is a shadowy, conspiratorial world, with costumes (Ingo Krügler) that seem redolent of 1950s crime movies.  The set is dominated by a large structure, suggestive of a ship, into which some of the cast retreat when they’re not singing.  As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that what the structure actually represents, is a physical manifestation of Boccanegra’s psyche.  This I found a highly compelling idea – that of a man haunted by his life on the seas, but also by his vanished daughter.  She was incarnated as a double of Amelia/Maria, a ghostly presence, who would appear at times, as if demonstrating that Boccanegra was perennially followed by his guilt.  As always with Bieito, there are some breathtakingly incisive stage pictures – the image of a heartbroken Boccanegra, confronted by a dead girl on the floor, while the crowd celebrated his election with ‘viva Simon’ was absolutely heart-breaking to watch, fully bringing out the complexities of emotions that Boccanegra experienced.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

Similarly, the staging also explores many familiar themes in Bieito’s work.  The unthinking mob, easily swayed, or how he made the feminine even stronger and more present in this male-dominated work.  The presence of Amelia/Maria’s double struck me as a potent reminder of the how the male characters seemed to treat abducting women as a way to resolve issues and gain power over opponents, thereby treating women as property.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

And yet, despite the undoubted intelligence and insight of the staging, the finely-crafted human relationships at its core, I left somewhat less than convinced.  There were two reasons for this.  One was the venue.  In a space as enormous and impersonal as this, the visceral impact and intelligence of this highly penetrating staging was partly lost, due to the sheer distance between spectators and the stage.  Bieito and his cast compensated for that with the placement of the principals on stage, but that can only go so far.  The other reason I felt that the evening lacked impact was in Fabio Luisi’s overly-sculpted and slightly soporific conducting.  He obtained playing of burnished magnificence from the house band.  The generous warmth of the opening prelude, or the transparent lightness of the opening measures of Act 1, were most impressive.  It’s just that his conducting seemed to value that sculpting of sound over dramatic impetus, meaning that the evening had a tendency to drag.  He also allowed the band to play out resoundingly which meant that, at times, the principals were covered.  The orchestra had a good night; the chorus sang with vibrating, full-throated ardour.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

The individual performances were always reliable and competently sung.  Ludovic Tézier gave a towering performance in the title role, finding a dramatic identification with his multifaceted character that I might not previously have associated with him.  It took a little while for the voice to warm up – there was a troubling buzz at the core of the tone in the prologue, but he coped admirably there with the relatively high tessitura.  As the evening developed, he sang with confident ardour, and a powerful column of sound, fully inhabiting the character, also through the text with immaculate diction – as indeed was the case for his colleagues.  Tézier sang tonight confidently, the voice always even in emission and held the stage most admirably.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

Maria Agresta sang Amelia/Maria with a full, generous soprano.  The middle has filled out nicely, but the vibrations at the top have loosened slightly at fuller volumes.  She sang ‘come in quest’ora bruna’ with an impeccable sense of line and gave us some lovely floated high singing, capping the ensemble nicely, in the act 1 finale.  For Francesco Demuro, Adorno represents a move into heavier territory for this singer more frequently cast as Rinuccio and Alfredo.  His slightly grey, wiry tenor certainly had no issues being heard in this barn.  His big Act 2 aria did, though, have him audibly stretched beyond his current limits, the top somewhat stressed and not ideally sustained.  He did bring an admirable sense of line, however.  Mika Kares was an impressive Fiesco.  His bass was liquid and complex, nicely full and rich at the bottom.  The top did sound slightly disconnected and chalky, lacking in that wonderfully complex depth of tone further down.  Nicola Alaimo’s Albiani was appropriately insinuating, if somewhat dry in tone.  Mikhail Timoshenko’s Pietro brought a healthy, handsome bass-baritone of youthful promise.

Photo: © Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

This was a frustrating evening in the theatre.  We got a musically fine performance with principals giving heartfelt and musically satisfactory accounts of their roles, living their characters in a vital way.  We also got a deeply insightful and psychologically penetrating staging that really succeeded in getting to the heart of the work, taking us deep into the psyche of a flawed man, haunted by the ghosts and deeds of the past.  Sadly, both of these elements were compromised by conducting that privileged beauty of sound over dramatic vitality, and by being performed in a venue were any sense of intimacy was lost by the sheer size of the space.  There was so much that was good, which makes it exceptionally frustrating that the experience as a whole wasn’t quite as satisfying as it really could, or indeed should, have been with such admirable individual performances and such an insightful staging.

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