Simon Boccanegra – review

Coliseum, London

A rising star on the international scene, Russian designer and director Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi's sombre charting of a ruler's rise and fall in his first production for a UK company. As in the Bolshoi's Eugene Onegin, which toured to Covent Garden last summer, he shows himself a master of body language. The minutely planned movements of each performer banish any lingering vestiges of the standard gestures opera singers used to rely on. Bruno Caproni's Boccanegra and Brindley Sherratt's Fiesco are visibly much older people following the 25-year-gap in the opera's action – and not merely through the usual expedient of changing wigs. Their every physical step or stance registers their age and the weight of intervening experience.

Tcherniakov's other strength lies in his ability to articulate crowd scenes with bravura. The chorus becomes a crowd of witless cheerleaders surrounding the victorious but grief-stricken Boccanegra in the prologue, and a dangerously volatile mob when they invade the council chamber.

The director's interventionist approach is thought-provoking, if occasionally dubious. Dropping the setting of 14th-century Genoa, he places the prologue in the 1960s at a dimly lit street corner, where Boccanegra is little more than a low-level thug. Later on, he has become the bespectacled, grey-suited CEO ruling a modern boardroom, though his hankering after an earlier and more clear-cut stage in his career is revealed through flashback images projected on to the walls.

Some of Tcherniakov's plot tweaks – Amelia merely imagines herself to be Boccanegra's daughter, watering down the emotional impact of the great father-daughter recognition scene; and the Doge doesn't drink the poisoned water, presumably dying of natural causes – are less effective than the originals. Yet elsewhere, there is a focused energy that is intelligent and persuasive.

There are some fine vocal performances. Sherratt's inky-black bass seeps into Fiesco's darkest internal recesses, and Caproni stands up nobly to the big baritone challenge of Boccanegra. Adorno takes Peter Auty's tenor close to his limits, though not actually beyond them. In a dramatically vivid but vocally uneven performance as Amelia, Rena Harms's soprano offers a shiny surface but only intermittent substance. Showing a consistent mastery of the score is music director Edward Gardner, who draws refined contributions from orchestra and chorus alike.

Contributor

George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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