Simon Boccanegra was a lamentable failure when it was premiered in the Fenice Venice in1857. It followed the immensely successful Rigoletto and Il Travatore and it was only when Verdi re-worked it, with a first performance at La Scala in 1881, that it came into the repertory of the great man’s operas, albeit slowly. Politics, it seems, needed special handling.

Simon Boccanegra is all about politics. It is set in fourteenth century Genoa and Boccanegra is an historic figure who became Doge of the city in 1339 following a popular coup. Impassioned words soar across the stage; some cry out for freedom to stand alone, others for the greater, unified Italy (always Verdi’s dream). In this England of 2018 it is impossible not see an echo of the rivalry between our Brexiteers and Remainers which may indeed lead to an imminent coup, although bloodless, one trusts. The comparison gives the slogans, the graffiti, with which the stage is decorated, and the endless arguments a dramatic topicality which adds to the enjoyment.

There always were two love stories interwoven between the struggles of warring factions but only one woman on the stage, the beautiful Amelia, because her mother dies (offstage) in the Prelude of the opera. Nevertheless Amelia, Boccanegra’s illigitimate daughter, is a superb part, locked into a desperate love affair with her father’s enemy, Gabrieli Adorno, although she doesn’t know Boccanegra is her father – at first. Then there is the matter of Fiesco, another of Boccanegra’s enemies who turns out to be her grandfather – a second surprise for her.

None of such improbable or even absurd complications (I’m afraid I heard a snigger) affected the strength of this opera because everything revolves round the magnificent figure of Simon Boccanegra. He is lover, patriot, a leader of men. Happily, the ROH has the great Carlos Alvarez to sing this baritone part, through the Prelude and Three Acts of almost constant performance. He delineates, through his singing and acting, a character of monumental proportions which overwhelms the efforts of the tenor, Francesco Meli, playing the role of Amelia’s lover, Adorno. It is not that Meli can’t hold his notes with some of Verdi’s heroic music but that Alvarez is just so good.

His power is already clear in Scene 2 of Act 1 when Boccanegra is urging his councillors to make peace with Venice. As enraged plotters burst up from the streets of the city, Boccangra calls again for peace and, once order is restored, issues a curse on the man who has instigated the rebellion. He forces his councillor and favourite, Paolo Albiani, sung by Mark Rucker to curse himself with terrified intensity, for he is the guilty man. It seems that politics can be as emotionally disturbing as love.

Amelia, a pawn in so much of this story nevertheless has enough arias of subtle beauty to colour her character. In Act I Scene 1 Hrachuhi Bassenz sings with great delicacy the aria praising the beauty as night gives way to day, ‘Come in quest’ora bruna…’ (How in the morning light...) Verdi himself when first casting the opera wrote that the singer should be ‘a young modest, thin, tender, lady.’ Perhaps not an easy ask for a top soprano and indeed Verdi eventually went with Anna d’Angeri, famous for the power of her voice.

Verdi spent every winter from 1860 to 1899 in a villa in Genoa and the music often reflects the shimmer of the sea. This ROH Elijah Moshinsky production dates from 1991 and still is remarkably impressive. The steeply raked stage, bordered by a row of sturdy columns, suggests the might of this great trading city while the brilliant blue-gold pouring from the back of the stage takes the eye to a seascape where commerce sails in from all round Europe and beyond. The heavy costumes in golds and reds and dark blue emphasise further Genoa’s might.

As usual at the Royal Opera House, it is hard to fault the orchestra. In this production it is conducted by Henrik Nanasi who brings out what Verdi commentator, Vincent Godefroy, characterizes as ‘the most sombre, introspective, monochrome of all his operas’. Indeed in the Prologue the scene is set by the melancholy tones of the brass and wind as Fiesco (sung movingly by Ferruccio Furnaletto) laments the loss of his daughter.

Simon Boccanegra does not have the compelling tragic appeal of so many of Verdi’s operas where carefully depicted characters struggle against the cruelty of man or fate. But when performed and produced with as much conviction as it is here, it makes an intensely dramatic comment on the place of man in the political world. It remains relevant and gripping a century and a half after it was composed and six hundred years after its historical setting.

Guiseppi Verdi
Director: Elijah Moshinsky Director: Henrik Nanasi