13 years ago, when the aged Plácido Domingo surprisingly triumphed in the title role of “Simon Boccanegra” at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Verdi’s opera was still considered a rarity. A gnarly late work, something for connoisseurs, not for the general public. The music lacking in catchy tunes. The historically grounded plot condensed like a parable. A political thriller, a costume party from the distant past, with complicated, sometimes erratic, illogical intrigues.
That has changed. Today, “Boccanegra” is considered the play of the hour. After a number of controversial new productions in Salzburg, Zurich and Essen, the Deutsche Oper Berlin is now following suit with a reading by the exiled Russian director Vasily Barkhatov. He transfers the historical drama from the 14th century to the present, on a revolving stage equipped in detail. It shows either the private or the public side of power – lounge or plenary hall, girls’ bedroom or standing party.
And waving the fence post again and again to great effect. Barkhatov’s message is: Politics corrupts character. When a man of good will like Simon Boccanegra comes to power, he quickly turns into a sleazy, black-assed mafia villain, and his dreams of peace, prosperity and democracy turn out to be propaganda opium for the people.
Giuseppe Verdi saw things decidedly differently in 1881, when he completed the second version of “Simon Boccanegra”. His Simon Boccanegra embodies the “voice of a better Italy”, he remains, as a Renaissance man and humanist, although doomed to failure, but a positive figure. It goes back to the real Simon Boccanegra, who once led the city republic in Genoa into the modern age as the first and fourth doge. He reigned intermittently from 1339 to 1363. Peaced the civil war, managed a famine and survived several plots before finally being poisoned.
Verdi did not give this hero an aria of his own. His boccanegra is always in discourse with others, with his adversaries or partisans. His appearance at the end of the first act, when he gives a historical speech in the council chamber, is not formally an aria. Rather embedded in vital actions of choir and ensemble. “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!” exclaims Boccanegra, his ardent speech peppered with original quotations from Francesco Petrarch, it culminates in a call for peace, joy and love. Everyone cheers and joins in.
Barkhatov has carefully endowed this group scene with all the statuary splendor and utopian pathos that the text and music demand. Then he suddenly turns off the light. The stage is pitch black, and it’s getting dark in the ditch too. A line of flashing neon strips runs, for a second, like Morse code or headlines, down the ramp from right to left. When the stage lights up again, you can see all the actors back in the position where they were before Boccanegra’s speech. The utopia is taken back so to speak: peace, joy, pancakes! Barkhatov uses the same dramaturgical trick several times, it says: everything is fake. Boccanegra, like all politicians, cheats. He cheats, including himself.
Almost consistently fantastic vocal performances
The direction also contradicts the score with the extras-rich, virtuoso placed videos and the witty press releases. On the other hand, the young Italian conductor Jader Bignamini argues from the orchestra pit with no less virtuosity. Flexible, fluid, in dynamically graded tempos, he confidently leads the choir and ensemble through Verdi’s unmistakable tonal speeches. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper is also in top form, with its velvety strings, seductive woodwinds and picturesque brass illuminating grief and anger, but also pity, love and the longing for happiness.
And the solo singers? Almost consistently simply fantastic! Outstanding is the bright baritone George Petean as Boccanegra, who fights intense duet battles with the three characteristically graded, dark male voices of the politicians. The cantilena of the young Russian soprano Maria Motolygina in the role of the lost daughter of Boccanegra is enchantingly round and warm, angelically bright in the duet she outshines her tenor lover (Attilio Glaser) and in the central Council Hall scene even the choir and the entire ensemble.
It turns out to be a really big evening. The contradiction that arises between what one sees and hears ultimately turns out to be productive. You don’t have to agree with everything that happens on stage. But you should definitely have heard and seen it.
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