Calixto Bieito is now too old to be dubbed an enfant terrible, but he can still be called the “Mad Catalan.” It has been sixteen years since his production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for theEnglish National Opera, which featured an assortment of urinals, and in the interim he has produced some effective work. But you wouldn’t know that from his new production of Simon Boccanegra at Opéra Bastille in Paris (seen on December 4). Verdi’s drama of political intrigue and fraught family relations in fourteenth-century Genoa is one of his richest and most profound works, but due to a host of idiosyncratic staging choices, it makes nowhere near the impact it should.

The problems begin in the prologue, by the end of which Boccanegra is elected doge over aristocratic opposition. The patrician Fiesco sings in the aria “Il lacerato spirito” of the sudden death of his daughter Maria, whom the corsair Simon Boccanegra had hoped to marry and by whom he fathered a daughter, now disappeared. Incredibly, Bieito has Fiesco enter literally dragging Maria’s body; she turns out to be alive and writhing in her death throes at Fiesco’s feet. Meanwhile, he solemnly sings his aria, paying no attention.

The cast of Simon Boccanegra. Photo: Agathe Poupeney. 

It’s not as if this detail bears on some overarching “concept” with which Bieito has saddled the opera. Bieito seems to have been motivated by sheer sensationalism. A number of other important moments are also botched, albeit less egregiously, including the moving scene in which Boccanegra comes to realize that a young woman believed to be from an aristocratic family is in fact his lost daughter, Amelia. Not only does he not embrace her, but he drops to the floor and never looks at her during the rest of their duet.

Due to a host of idiosyncratic staging choices, this production of Simon Boccanegra makes nowhere near the impact it should.

The great final scene in which Boccanegra dies from poisoning is handled better. It was touching to see the elderly Fiesco attempting to keep Boccanegra, his former antagonist, from collapsing. Amelia should have been right there, too, helping Fiesco to hold Boccanegra up. Instead, she stood at a distance.

A more basic problem is an excess of gloom in the stage picture overall. The only item of decor is an immense structure that moved about the stage like a giant reptile. The only conceivable explanation is that it was some abstraction of a ship, a nod to Boccanegra’s former occupation. It looked particularly dumb, and rather unsafe, when filled with people for the Council Chamber scene.

The “ship” on the set of Simon Boccanegra. Photo: Agathe Poupeney.

Musically, matters were much better. Ludovic Tézier’s sonorous, resonant baritone superbly fit the requirements of the title role. He sang with ample sound without overdoing it, and his portrayal effectively addressed the role’s different facets, from tender father to authoritative, respected political leader.

Anita Hartig performed Amelia’s first aria so blandly I almost fell asleep. Perhaps Bieito had something to do with this, because as soon as the offstage voice of Amelia’s lover, Gabriele Adorno, was heard, she came to life and sang vibrantly, with a lovely tone, for the rest of the evening. Her voice soared in the Council Chamber scene’s large ensemble, and she exquisitely articulated Amelia’s descending chromatic line in the emotionally overwhelming final ensemble. Metropolitan Opera audiences can look forward to Hartig as Violetta in its new production of La traviata in April.

I was quite taken with the tenor Francesco Demuro’s dashing, youthful Gabriele. His style and diction were very Italianate, although his voice is rather wiry. Mika Kares’s deep, smooth bass made for an imposing Fiesco, and Nicola Alaimo excelled as the doge’s unscrupulous courtier Paolo Albiani. The conductor, Fabio Luisi, did fine work overall, but he could have heightened the opera’s darker sonorities.

One other thing: during the intermission, a projection of a nude Maria appeared with rats crawling on her body, especially on her private parts. Ugh. Enfant terrible could be the right term for Bieito after all. Or maybe just enfant.


The cast of Simon Boccanegra. Photo: Agathe Poupeney. 

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