Simon Boccanegra - ENO Coliseum, 8 June 2011
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s reputation for radical and thought-provoking productions is solidified by his new Simon Boccanegra for ENO. Unfortunately his ideas are so drably clothed and opaquely executed that the experience is a testing one.
After a colourful '60s-styled street scene prologue, complete with car, he shades the body of the opera, visually and dramatically, in contemporary corporate monochrome. The contrast with the sumptuous tinta of the score is deliberately perverse.
Simon Boccanegra demonstrates that all truths are built on rickety foundations. Accepted wisdom is that it’s a fault of the opera’s construction, but Tcherniakov makes it the purpose. It's a perfectly valid perspective - why should we assume, as we usually do, that Verdi fell short of his usual standards with this opera? What if he meant it to puzzle and confound us and defy our propensity to frame events in objective logic?
Verdi gives us bites of the story and hands us the synopsis for the rest; coincidence is elevated to the power of a governing law. Most productions paper over these cracks. Tcherniakov instead chooses to signpost them, to point out the artifice and question the conventions usually deployed to conceal it.
The cast are mostly familiar names who can act ‘well’ (in the accepted sense) if they choose to. Here there’s so much self-conscious thumb-twiddling it often looked as if they didn’t know what they should be doing. Entrances are mistimed, confrontations stilted. I’m not sure if James Fenton’s truly poetic translation was deliberately designed to distance. The 50 year interval between the ‘60s prologue and the present day balance isn’t reflected in the characters’ modest ageing. Scenery wobbles menacingly. Weapons are absent from the hand, though not the libretto.
During the attenuated scene changes, Tcherniakov projects explanatory intertitles on to the curtain, as if to underline that Verdi isn’t telling us everything we need to know. It’s Brechtian alienation taken to another level and I suspect anyone other than Berlin dramaturgs will find it less than gripping.
He falls down on specifics. Amelia, a stringy-haired Goth in DM’s, is clearly modelled on Lisbeth Salander, who in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo investigates a missing niece and a murderous dynasty founded on the abuse of power. Apart from the obvious this-story-is-a-bit-like-that-story, the pursuit of parallels (extended to a Blomkvist-like Adorno) doesn’t cast any real light on the opera. Tcherniakov’s hint (via intertitle) that Amelia may not be Simone’s daughter after all seems another red herring.
On the other hand, the anonymous corporate setting – grey suits, plastic chairs, all that’s missing is a Powerpoint presentation – is so pervasive in our culture that it’s become too generalised to mean anything. And on a purely visual level, it’s dull.
What does work well (mostly) is the Hopperesque prologue. I could have done without the continuously-flashing car headlights – but something tells me the director realises exactly how irritating they are. The contrast between this scene’s Boccanegra – a lout in a checked shirt – and the suave businessman of the later acts tells us far more about the pirate’s journey than most productions. It’s a real achievement for Tcherniakov (and for Bruno Caproni, in the title role).
The ending isn’t quite as satisfying. Boccanegra folds a newspaper into a ship/hat and wanders off into the distance, turning the usual extended death by poisoning into an apologetic nervous breakdown that sits uncomfortably with the swirling drama of the music.
The cast threw themselves wholeheartedly into the concept, but only Brindley Sherratt as an unusually sinister Fiesco sang consistently well. Caproni’s moments of Verdian splendour were interleaved with unpredictable wobbles, and dramatically he seemed far surer as the swashbuckling pirate yob than the weary businessman. Peter Auty’s Adorno was often thrilling – he has exactly the right timbre for the part – but he seemed to tire towards the end. Roland Wood was a suave and powerful Paolo. The young American soprano Rena Harms made a coolly compelling Amelia, but the emotional breadth of the role is at this stage a little beyond her (as were a few of the notes).
The surprise hero of the night was Edward Gardner, whose wonderfully measured account of the score glowed with all the colours the stage lacked. Not quite as good as his outstanding Tosca, but the best I’ve heard him conduct since, and further evidence of his increasing maturity as an operatic conductor. I wonder if Tony Pappano (sitting in the stalls) was equally impressed?
production photos (above): Mike Hoban for ENO
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com