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A solid success

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/11/2009 -  & 14, 18, 22, 24, 28 April, 3, 7 May, 2009
Giusppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Paolo Gavanelli (Simon Boccanegra), Tamara Wilson (Maria/Amelia), Mikhail Agafanov (Gabriele Adorno), Philip Ens (Fiesco/Andrea), Daniel Sutin (Paolo Albiani), Alain Coulombe (Pietro), Erin Fisher (Amelia's Maidservant), Michael Barrett (Captain of the Archers)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Marco Guidarini (Conductor)
Ian Judge (Director), Daniel Dooner (Associate Director), John Gunter (Set Designer), Deirdre Clancy (Costume Designer), Nigel Levings (Lighting Designer)

T. Wilson (© Michael Cooper)

The COC’s Simon Boccanegra, in a production borrowed from Covent Garden (new in 2008) is a thorough success of what is widely regarded as a problematic opera.

While the unit set depicts 14th century Genoa, the costumes are from the 19th century. The production team if from the UK and what this shows is that Brits tend to be kinky about things Victorian. Luckily this does not detract from the drama.

The vibrant colour used is a welcome contrast to the spate of black-on-gray sets and costumes we have seen in many recent productions. Nigel Levings's lighting adds greatly to the eloquent stage pictures.

Ian Judge’s direction is masterful. The plot has its difficulties, but the director’s approach seems to be to make every dramatic point as clearly as possible and to keep the whole show moving along.

The unit set permits smooth scene changes, with different locales indicated by representative items lowered from the flies. The dead tree branch used to signify the garden is the only one that does not succeed, but it doesn’t ruin the evening.

The scene change from the prologue to Act I is particularly effective and almost eery as Judge keeps the performers on stage through several seconds of silence and the quiet opening phrases introducing Amelia’s aria, while a useful surtitle informs us that 25 years have elapsed.

Similarly skillful is the handling of the sombre ending, with the death of Simon; in Judge’s hands it is spell-binding.

Paolo Gavanelli in the title role delivers an object lesson on how it ought to be performed, with an amazing and always apposite variety of tone and expression. He most certainly earns his vociferous ovation.

Tamara Wilson performs Amelia. The initial impression is that her voice might be too much toward the lyric end of the lirico-spinto fach. In Come in quest’ora bruna she displays a girlish innocence, but the voice manages to hold its own through the ensuing duets and ensembles, especially in the higher range. She reveals an acute response to pointed direction in a brief but telling moment in the Council Chamber scene when she declares that she can see the one responsible for her abduction and she gives a piercing glance toward Paolo. She declines to name him amidst the threatening violence of the mob and this gives rise to the dramatic moment when Simon demands that Paolo curse the evil-doer, himself.

Tenor Mikhail Agafonov as Simon’s enemy-turned-defender, Gabriele Adorno, is the first performer assigned no less than five leading roles in the three seasons of the new opera house, and achieves a level of suavity not heard in his three previous Italian roles. The voice blares somewhat in his Act II outburst O inferno! Amelia qui! when he is convinced by Paolo that Simon has designs on Amelia, but at this point in the drama it is not inappropriate.

Daniel Sutin as the villain of the piece, Paolo Albiani, gives a strong performance. His turnabout from Simon's henchman to poisoner is very abrupt and one wishes he was given a juicy Iago-like vengeance aria. His voice contrasts well with the lead baritone role and with the bass role of Fiesco/Andrea. Philip Ens hasn’t the blackest possible voice for Fiesco, but its suppleness attractively traverses the contours of the musical line. It really is a surprise when, in Act III, “Andrea” turns out to be Fiesco as he looks a full generation younger than Simon instead of a generation older.

Alain Coulombe is a solid Pietro, and Ensemble Studio members Michael Barrett and Erin Fisher do well as the Captain of the Archers and Maidservant respectively. Sandra Horst’s chorus sounds great (as usual) as they perform the often very animated action required.

Conductor Marco Guidarini makes his COC debut and he is welcome back any time.

The last COC Simon Boccanegra production was thirty years ago and it is sure to be quite awhile before it returns. Yes, there are reasons why this work is overshadowed by more celebrated Verdi works, but a production as solid and satisfying as this really ought to be seen.

Michael Johnson



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