Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Simon Boccanegra in Strasbourg

Simon Boccanegra, Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg, October 24 2010

Richard, Richards, Ryssov, Calderon, Murzaev, Focile, Burdenko

Keith Warner ..... director
Rani Calderon ..... conductor

Sergey Murzaev ..... Simon Boccanegra
Michail Ryssov ..... Jacopo Fiesco
Nuccia Focile ..... Maria Boccanegra (Amelia)
Andrew Richards ..... Gabriele Adorno
Roman Burdenko ..... Paolo Albiani
Arnaud Richard ..... Pietro

Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse
Chorus of Opéra national du Rhin

Thanks to my extra-Miles [had to use them before 2011] I could hop on the plane and go to Strasbourg to see la prima of the new Keith Warner's production of Simon Boccanegra.

The artistic management of this theater deserves a world of respect: besides their ongoing --and highly acclaimed-- Ring des Nibelungen,  directed by David McVicar, they manage to produce at least 3 new shows every year, each show being the world's top quality level.  This Boccanegra is a good illustration of that point: scenically highly interesting, and musically excellent.

While everyone was in trance listening to Placido Domingo's Boccanegra in Berlin (2009) and in Milan (2010), I was infinitely more impressed by Anja Harteros, and focused on fighting the tide of  growing boredom of the show by Federico Tizzi.

In Strasbourg, instead, even though the show by Keith Warner remains very classical in its approach to this piece [there is next to zero action transposed from the time of the Doge of Genoa], it is a very example of how this kind of opera should be directed: the stage action is organized cleverly with ever evolving sets and superb light effects which permanently support the dramatic action without ever stealing the spectator's attention from actors/singers. Keith and his team deserve a big bravo for what they did here. I'd be a bit less complimentary about acting but I don't know how much of that is due to Warner's direction of actors and how much due to limited acting skills of the protagonists.

What about this clever staging? There are basically two walls which often move to create different stage configurations, allowing to create on the fly different dramatic situations. When the walls are placed parallel to one another and orthogonal to the pit, you basically have three separate rooms (if two lateral cells are narrower, there is very little acting effort to see eavesdroppers/spies in action). If the walls are aligned you get an extra-wall to cover the depth of the stage (and depict the action in front of the Doge's palace, for example). They can be slightly misaligned and you virtually gain in depth of the stage. If they're pointed against each other, they form a triangle pointed toward the pit and separate the stage in two symmetric pieces -- separating the two sides engaged in civil war...

It does not end there: the walls are multilayered and when unfolded they are either black or exhibit a 14th century looking fresco-like painting.  This, apparently simple, idea of organizing the stage works marvelously well because it kills any possibility of stale moment in which the suspended action might fall. One more reason why this all works so remarkably well is that there is almost nothing extra on the stage (apart from the model cathedral!) -- any extra piece of decor would make it all too distracting and perhaps messy.  At the same time,  the stage never looks naked or minimalist at any moment of the show. It all seems to be moving to put the actors/singers in different situations as to make the action continuously progress.
Ah yes, the front part of the stage is slightly immersed in water: Boccanegra will enter the stage (Genoa) from there (from the sea).

The orchestra was evidently well prepared and meticulously conducted by Rani Calderon. I liked the overall precision in timing, in choosing the right tempi for both the action on the stage and to respect singers. Bravo! Thanks to the permanently evolving stage a weakish point of the show remained well disguised: the acting is not always a high point (Boccanegra and Fiesco in particular). On the other hand Paolo, Adorno, and Amelia managed to bring some good acting which further emphasize the clever staging -- it all looks like a continuous flow of little episodes.

As for the singing quality of the show, this was a very high quality show. As usual, you're immediately impressed by the sheer power of Sergey Murzaev's broad and rich baritone. He could even afford to tone it a little bit down and avoid the fatigue towards the end of the show when he sings less and less and starts barking. [Do listen to this singing and you'll understand why tenor simply cannot be as good Boccanegra, even if his initials are PD!] Similar is the case with Michail Ryssov who's trouble focusing on singing in his last 5-10 minutes. Those little details should not take anything away from their overall excellent vocal performance.
Nuccia Focile sings admirably too although there were a few moments when Amelia seemed a tad too big a role for her.
My personal favorites were Roman Burdenko and Andrew Richards. Burdenko's scenic presence, his powerful but richly timbred voice was a very pleasant surprise for me. He is capable to make that swing of mood Paolo Albiani in Act-3 audible, without resorting to verismo tricks. The loudest cheers of the crowd at the premiere's curtain call went rightfully to Andrew Richards. I keep telling it for a few years already, he's one of the very best tenors today. Currently on a roll, he's one of your best Don José's around, excellent Pollione or Werther, brilliant Parsifal, amazing Macduff,  and now add to that a fantastic Adorno.  I even tried to pick on some 'flaw' to tease him -- but I detected none! It's disarming: no shouting, and no inaudible moments either, never short of breath,  projecting excellently without ever skipping a note or two... too good. 

If you like Verdi --and Simon Boccanegra in particular-- you should see and listen to this show!

Here are some production photos ©Alain Kaiser:

Michail Ryssov and Sergey Murzaev

Andrew Richards and Sergey Murzaev

Adorno, Amelia and Boccanegra

Last moments of Boccanegra

Adorno is the new Doge

Although beautiful the photos unfortunately don't allow you to see the beauty of the change of scenery after the walls are repositioned and unfolded. Photos below are mine:

Keith Warner and his assistant(?) in the middle

Auditorium of Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg
A few photos from the production [©Alain Kaiser] are exhibited in the theater's hall. Here are two with Amelia and Adorno:

Amelia - Nuccia Focile

Adorno - Andrew Richards

Cast members with maestro Rani Calderon and the director Keith Warner

For the record, please note that I was praising a classically staged show. I admit that I rarely like a literal-narrative staging but when it's done cleverly like in this case I'm all for it!


  1. (cue sound of padded feet tip-toeing into the room...) Psssst. PSSSST! Thank you, Opera Cake.

    Seriously. I'm glad you took the time to write up the work of Boris Kudlicka and assistant Joanna Kus, stage design & Wolfgang Goebbel, Lighting. There are some really striking things to take in of their work. I'm very proud of what the piece is becoming. Tonite's 2nd performance, even stronger.

    Merci buckets.

  2. You're right -- I should have mentioned Boris Kudlicka explicitly instead of lumping him in the "Keith Warner's production team". His work ws at least half of the job (similar to what Heike Scheele does in Stefan Herheim's shows)

    In any case you're on a roll right now! ((Clapping))