Russell Thomas triumphs in Boccanegra

4 Jul

For me, the most special thing about the very good, but oddly uninvolving performance of Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House on 3rd July was the Gabriele Adorno of Russell Thomas.  For some reason, this man’s name has by-passed me, though he’s sung with the Welsh and at the Met. What I heard was one of the most promising Verdi tenors that I’ve heard in a long time.  His repertory appears to range from Mozart to John Adams, through Berlioz and Verdi.  In this role, his voice reminded me of Bergonzi – a plangent, slightly dry-ish tenor, but with the style and technique to make this rather difficult role sound grateful.  His phrasing in his big aria, his duets with Amelia and in the trio struck me as immaculate and hugely intelligent – no obvious gear changes and real control of dynamics and an understanding of the words.  He doesn’t strike me as the most of expressive actor in the world but, frankly, with singing like this I don’t care.  I want to hear him again as Carlos, Alvaro, Gustavus, Foresto and Stiffelio, perhaps also in Donizetti and as Cavaradossi.  This was one of the most assured and promising debuts here that I’ve seen since Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José in 2006.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast was bad but that it is very special to hear a Gabriele Adorno sung so outstandingly.  He had a very fine Amelia in Hibla Gerzmava.  I regret missing her Tatyana and Donna Anna here.  She struck me as having a really beautiful, creamy, grateful voice – obviously suited to Amelia.  Vocally, I couldn’t fault her and I hope she’ll be back.  She made a sympathetic figure but I have seen Amelias who have made more immediate impressions in, say, the recognition scene and if I sometimes wondered whether she really cared about what was going on onstage.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco undoubtedly did care.  His Fiesco is familiar but still wonderfully sung and carrying a passion with it that, particularly in the last scene, I found really impressive and moving.  He sang with a raw understanding of the text and was unafraid to heighten the emotion and emote a bit. He’s a powerful presence and, like his Philip, I really can’t think of anyone else I’d rather hear in the role.

My principal reason for booking, however, (aside from the fact that I love the opera) was to hear Thomas Hampson as Boccanegra.  He’s a favourite singer of mine, but I can’t help wondering whether this is a role which really suits him.  He undoubtedly has the right sort of voice for the part.  He sings the words well, with a lieder singer’s attention to colour and dynamic and you feel that this has been a very carefully thought-through interpretation.  The problem for me, however, is that thought-through singing is exactly what you don’t want for this role.  There needs to be the sense of raw emotion, passion and daring that Furlanetto has.  You have to convey the passion and anger at the death of Maria, the heart-stopping joy that Domingobrought to the recognition scene or the authority you need for the Council scene.   I simply didn’t get that from Hampson’s, elegant, committed, intelligent but ultimately rather distant Boccanegra.  And on stage, I missed the impetuosity and power and anger of a man who has eloped with an aristocrat’s daughter, lost his own daughter, been snubbed by the aristocracy, has ruled by fear but who has an idealism as well.  Hampson’s persona of a slightly troubled, enlightenment figure missed this and so made the performance a rather distant experience.  Domingo may have been the wrong voice for the part, but he made me cry in the duet with Amelia and I found the reconciliation with Furlanetto hugely touching.  I lost that here.

I don’t think I could fault Antonio Pappano’s conducting (save, perhaps, for an almost military feel to the Figlia, qual nome part of the Boccanegra/Amelia duet).  He paced the score well, got lovely, detailed playing out of the orchestra and managing the climaxes marvellously.  What was missing was the sparks that ought to fly from the interactions between the characters.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in Elijah Moshinsky’s production, now in its seventh series of performances.  It looks handsome and the wide open spaces work well for the first scene of Act I and the Council Scene.  In the later Acts, where the action is much more intimate, I wanted the characters further forward, perhaps with less space.  I thought his direction of the characters also lacking – it wasn’t helpful to have Hampson with his back to us during Amelia’s narration  and I found her rather silly dance of joy later in that scene contrived and there’s surely more that you can do with the Council scene.  Characters rarely looked directly at each, rarely seemed to strike sparks.

This isn’t to say that this wasn’t a fine performance.  We were lucky to have singers of this calibre in a handsome, strong staging with excellent conducting and playing.  But, for me, this rickety, problematic but hugely rewarding opera needs to have a bit more than that.  It needs the spark and fire of a Domingo or Gobbi in the title role or the visual genius of David Alden in the old ENO production and we just missed those.  On the other hand, I’m more than grateful to have heard Russell Thomas and this was anything but a wasted evening on that account alone.

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