Political intrigue brought up to date

Craig Smith as Simon Boccanegra confronts the rebels Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

Simon Boccanegra

English Touring Opera

Wolverhampton Grand


THIS was probably a political thriller when Verdi unleashed it in 1857 in an Italy where unification was in full swing.

There is revolution, partisans rising against the rich and powerful, powerful families, political intrigue, allegiances and betrayal and even a poisoning of the leading character – a typical day in Italian politics really.

The original based on the 1843 play by Spanish dramatis Antonio Gutiérrez, was a bit on the complex side as far as story and characters went, so a revised version was produced in 1881 which is the one ETO are touring, with a twist.

 Verdi's Il trovatore, incidentally, was based on another Gutiérrez play  El trovador.

The original was set in Genoa in 1339 jumping on to 1364 but in this ETO version, directed by James Conway, the setting is moved to an Italy just after the Second World War  when Italian politics, which always make comic opera look staid and serious,  were as predictable as the weekly lottery numbers.

Boccanegra, a privateer – virtually a licenced pirate – in the original is turned into a partisan who, from the surtitles we are sold was a black marketer and instead of becoming Doge of Genoa becomes Prime Minister.

Boccanegra with his daughter Amelia sung wonderfully by  Elizabeth Llewellyn

Craig Smith manages the aging of 25 years from young partisan to  careworn Premier over a quarter of a century well and is in good baritone voice throughout.

Singing honours though go to Elizabeth Llewellyn with her powerful, soaring soprano as Amelia, the adopted daughter of the patrician Grimaldi  family but secretly the daughter of Boccanegra and the dead Maria Fiesco.

Maria's child had led to  a feud between Boccanegra and the powerful  Fiesco played by Keel Watson, a big man with a big, bass baritone voice.

Other key players are Paolo, sung wonderfully by Grant Doyle, who backs Boccanegra and then betrays him and Adorno, Ameila's lover and one of the rebels against Boccanegra's rule.

Verdi is not a common subject for ETO, not for any cultural reasons, purely cost as Verdi demands big orchestras and big choruses, although Boccanegra is smaller than some, but a grant from the Peter Moores Foundation Swansong Project has enabled a larger production, musically, to be added to the repertoire.

Samal Blak's design is minimalistic yet effective with  the use of perspective lines and square columns to give us streets, barricades, gardens and a council chamber all created by a few walls and lighting.

The larger than usual ETO orchestra show their worth with some fine playing under Michael Rosewell.

This is perhaps not one of Verdi's finest works, possibly because of its unfamiliarity, and although it has beautiful music with some fine duets and trios it has no really memorable arias or chorus works – hence I suspect the unfamiliarity again.

It is an opera that is unlikely to feature on any greatest arias or operatic highlights compilations.

This is a fine production with, Amelia and Paolo excepted, singing which is pleasing rather than exceptional but that does not detract at all from what is a rare and welcome airing for Verdi's political thriller.11-04-13

Roger Clarke 

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