Power and Humanity: Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Verdi – Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra – George Petean
Jacopo Fiesco –
Alexander Vinogradov
Amelia Grimaldi –
Selene Zanetti
Gabriele Adorno –
Ramón Vargas
Paolo Albiani –
Blake Denson
Pietro –
Hubert Kowalczyk
Un capitano dei balestrieri –
Florian Panzieri
Un’ancella di Amelia –
Yeonjoo Katharina Jang

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Ivan Repušić.
Stage director – Claus Guth.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Saturday, April 1st, 2023.

The current performances of Simon Boccanegra form part of the annual Italienische Opernwoche at the Staatsoper Hamburg.  Alongside these revivals of Claus Guth’s 2006 production, the house is also mounting a new production of Il trittico, and revivals of Tosca, Don Pasquale, and Il turco in Italia.  The main attractions of this run of Simon Boccanegra for me, was the presence of George Petean in the title role and Ivan Repušić in the pit – both of whom gave such a great deal of pleasure in their performances of Ballo in Munich last year.

Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Simon Boccanegra is a difficult work to stage, in that the plot can seem relatively complex with characters with multiple identities coming out of the woodwork, and a sense of never really knowing who the truly ‘good’ characters are.  Guth takes an interesting approach to staging the work.  He takes the flashback approach quite literally, with the curtain opening on Boccanegra’s death scene and the action tracing back from there.  The stage design, sets and costumes by Christian Schmidt, initially has a separate corridor visible at the back of the stage, where characters walk through, illustrating the events that led to the older Maria’s death, as well as the conspiratorial actions within – including a striking moment when Amelia’s attempted abduction is staged.  As the evening develops, we see a large structure penetrating the set, initially peaking through the ceiling, then suspended half-way above the action, then on the ground.  I’m not quite sure what it was – it could have been a rock or it could have been giant faeces, but it was certainly impressive to look at.  Guth makes frequent use of doubles to illustrate the action.  While this was insightful in the case of the older Maria, it was less so in the case of Adorno addressing the double of Boccanegra.  It just felt like doing something for the sake of it, rather than bringing an interesting perspective.  Still, the evening was fluently rehearsed (revival by Marie-Christine Lüling), the 1950s costumes looked good, and it made for an effective framework for the drama to unfold in, even if there were a few moments that felt slightly random.

Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Musically, there was a lot that gave a great deal of satisfaction in tonight’s performance.  It was only a few years ago that many complained about the dearth of great Verdi baritones.  In Petean we most certainly have one.  The voice sounds so fresh, the tone so healthy – emissions always even, as indeed is the voice from top to bottom.  His Boccanegra was truly sung off the text, the words always front and centre where they belong.  Yet, he’s also able to spin out milky-smooth long, legato lines.  The top seems to defy gravity and the tone emerges through a firm column of sound.  His Boccanegra was haunted from the start, desperate for understanding, yet determined and unwilling to suffer fools.  There was a palpable warmth and humanity to his interactions with Selene Zanetti’s Amelia that I found deeply moving.

Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Zanetti is an exciting, young Italian soprano, who trained with Raina Kabaivanska.  It was only six years ago that she was participating in the opera studio in Munich.  Her Amelia benefitted from her clarity of diction.  The voice itself is rather dark in sound, but soars easily on top.  She also has an impressive and genuine trill.  I did, however, leave with the impression that the role is rather large for her current vocal estate.  She seems to be wishing to make the voice bigger than it is, noticeable through the fact that it sits around the note rather than on it.  There were several points at which Zanetti sounded unable to sustain the longer phrases, again potentially as a result of wanting to broaden out the sound.  It’s undoubtedly an attractive instrument that could certainly grow into the role in future, I just left with the impression that this assignment was rather ambitious currently.

Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Ramón Vargas gave us an impressive assumption of Adorno in this, his sixty-third year.  One cannot deny that the passage of time is not audible in his singing.  The top is now somewhat drier than of yore and requires some more careful negotiation than previously.  That said, he understands implicitly how this music should go and filled all he did tonight with genuine Latin warmth of tone.  Indeed, Vargas gave us a singing lesson in how to manage the technique.  This was my first occasion hearing Blake Denson and I very much hope it will be the first of many.  As Paolo, he’s the owner of a very handsome instrument indeed, filled with warm resonance and a complex depth of tone.  The way he opened up on top was most impressive.  As Pietro, Hubert Kowalczyk sang with an equally handsome bass, more liquid in tone than Denson, but similarly gratifying to listen to.  Alexander Vinogradov sang Fiesco in a lugubrious bass with an impeccable legato, even if his Italian sounds rather exotic in flavour.  The remaining roles reflected the excellent quality one has come to expect at this address. 

Repušić led a reading full of cantabile beauty.  Those opening measures, with hazy, gossamer strings, were phrased with love and affection.  He also made much of Verdi’s originality of orchestration here, the opening to ‘come in quest’ora bruna’ seemed even more innovative that I’ve heard before, with strings and winds seemingly redolent of a strumming guitar.  Similarly, Repušić seemed to revel in the big moments, such as when Boccanegra forces Paolo to curse himself, with extrovert brass and a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion.  Perhaps those cries of ‘viva Simon’ at the end of the prologue were a bit subdued and the off-stage choruses were sometimes a little too distant in sound from my seat in the middle of the Parkett.  The brass played with muscular strength and string intonation was accurate throughout.  The chorus, prepared by Christian Günther, sang with superb tuning in the tenors and basses.

Tonight may have been a repertoire evening in Hamburg, but it was one that showed this house at its best.  A logical staging that successfully managed to illustrate a complex plot, excellent quality of singing across the board, and vividly conducted.  It was an evening that did indeed give much satisfaction.  The audience received the cast at the end with a generous ovation.

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