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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra
Giancarlo Pasquetto (baritone) Simon Boccanegra; Elena Prokina (soprano) Maria; Peter Sidhom (bass-baritone) Paolo Albiani; Daniel Borowski (bass) Pietro; Alastair Miles (bass) Jacopo Fiesco; David Rendall (tenor) Gabriele Adorno; Yvonne Patrick (soprano) Amelia’s Maid; Kevin Sharp (tenor) A Captain
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder.
Director: Peter Hall.
Rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera in July 1998.
WARNER MUSIC VISION/NVC ARTS 3984-23025-2 [143’00]

Don’t let the presentation put you off. Those who like DVD ‘extras’ (interviews with conductor, soloists etc) will be disappointed as there are none. Similarly there is no booklet, only a synopsis printed on the box left-inside that does not even subdivide into acts.

The actual performance may be known to many anyway, as it has certainly been broadcast on the BBC at some point. It is an account I have been familiar with for a while, and have been generally fond of, although hearing it in DVD sound only emphasises Giancarlo Pasquetto’s unsatisfactory portrayal of the titular role. On the other side of the coin, it has the effect also, though, of emphasising the sheer vocal beauty and in-depth projection of the ever-excellent Elena Prokina’s Maria, and the wealth of experience Alastair Miles brings to his Fiesco.

Running through the opera is Mark Elder’s confident direction. Speeds are well-chosen and he shows excellent rapport with his singers. The LPO play as if specifically formed to play Verdi.

Of all of Verdi’s operas, the orchestral input needs to be in place. A story of political intrigue as well as of (discovered) familial rivalry (Boccanegra’s rival, Fiesco, is it turns out, Amelia’s grandfather, Gabriele her father) and, of course, love (Gabriele and Paolo are rivals for her hand in marriage). After 25 years of rivalry, Fiesco and Boccanegra forgive each other towards the end. Boccanegra, poisoned by Paolo, names Gabriele as his successor.

The staging is, as is appropriate for this work, on the dark side. The long Prologue is set at night in a piazza in Genoa, with a church in the background. The scene between Paolo and Pietro is instructive as it gives us a chance to compare and contrast Peter Sidhom and Daniel Borowski, respectively. Sidhom is actually the more vocally focused of the two, and when alone, his sung hatred of politicians is believable.

Giancarlo Pasquetto is weak in comparison, a great shame as it is on him that the opera focuses. His vibrato is so bleaty that in his worst moments he comes across as a baritonal sheep. He suffers particularly in comparison with the rock-steady bass of Alistair Miles (magnificent recently as Silva in Ernani at ENO and no less magnificent here). The orchestra and Elder seem to rise to Miles’ portrayal, blazing in a reflection of his fury in the scene with Simon and in the confrontation about the missing child.

It is left to the beginning of Act 1 for the first real treat however. Elena Prokina sings one of the most beautiful ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’ I have ever heard, her tone a shimmering thing of wonder. Against her, the orchestra (unusually) sounds on the literal side, but the again she does sing like an angel. Her Gabriele (David Rendall) combines vocal heft with clear diction - indeed the pair work remarkably well together; later, it is Prokina who again steals the show as she narrates her history in Pisa. Her breath-control is surely the envy of every singer.

Pasquetto’s tremulous vibrato continues to cause for concern in Act 1 Scene 2, especially when heard against Rendall’s ringing top, although Boccanegra’s ‘Plebe! Patrizi! Populo!’ does in fact carry authority.

Watching the DVD though, it does come as a bit of a surprise that there is no applause after Act 1. We move straight through to Act 2, where Sidhom and Borowski, against crepuscular reds, appear with Sidhom a believable manifestation of evil. If only Gabriele (Rendall) had the dramatic power to convince us of his jealousy, or the lyric breadth required for his aria (‘Giusto cielo’).

Act Three reminds us of the excellence of the chorus - initially off-stage, blessing the wedding of Gabriele and Amelia. It is perhaps in this act that, musically, Verdi begins to look forward to his greatest achievements. For example, the way silence plays an important part in dysjunct lines allotted to Simon. Simon’s blessing of Gabriele and Amelia (here with one hand on each head) is a lovely moment, yet here it could carry so much more significance than Pasquetto allows. In comparison, the purity of Prokina’s reaction is almost cruel in its beauty.

Simon Boccanegra is a remarkable piece of music and a remarkable piece of theatre. It is also problematic in its mix of political intrigue and more human relationships. All credit to Elder and his forces for giving it a performance of such conviction.

Colin Clarke


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