Giuseppe Verdi turned 200 last month. To celebrate his bicentennial birthday, the Kentucky Opera is staging a brand-new production of the Italian composer’s infrequently-produced “Simon Boccanegra,” an opera about the intersection of populist politics and familial intrigue.
“Simon Boccanegra” didn’t light up the mid-19th century opera world when it debuted in 1857, but a later reboot by Verdi bumped the work up in critical estimation. Still, it remains acclaimed (especially for its beautiful score and clarity of themes) but under-produced, especially when compared to his other works like “Rigoletto,” “Aida,” “Don Carlos” and of course, the perennial blockbuster “La Traviata.”
The company premiere is part of the Kentucky Opera’s ongoing initiative to expand its programming.
“This ability to create our own production design affords us the opportunity to explore masterworks that are seldom produced in this country. Meaning, no sets are available for us to rent,” general manager David Roth said at WUOL’s Lunchtime Classics opera preview last week. “It allows us to expand the repertory boundaries of Kentucky Opera, moving beyond popular and too-often-repeated operas.”
Director David Lefkowich praised “Simon Boccanegra,” but also calls it “grand opera,” usually seen only on the stages of the big companies like the Metropolitan Opera with huge casts and lavish sets.
“Just rather dusty, also, in a way,” said Lefkowich. “So the challenge for the design team and myself was how do we take this piece and turn this into something people would want to see, that they would relate to?”
Verdi set his story in 14th century Genoa, Italy — not exactly familiar territory for a contemporary audience, either. So this new production remains in Genoa but moves the action up to the early 20th century, to the unstable period at the end of World War I through the rise and fall of Italy’s Fascist regime in World War II, which gave the creative team a contemporary setting with the right volatile political climate.
“And it also gives the audience something that we can understand, that we know. There’s not a lot of historical documentation of the 14th century, of Genoa, so a lot of that is kind of a fantastical world, something made up,” Lefkowich said. “As opposed to the 20th century where we have a lot of pictorial research, and we have things to draw upon to help give some honesty to this piece.”
The opera begins with a prologue, set in 1918, in which two political party leaders conspire to get Simon Boccanegra (Malcolm MacKenzie, making his Kentucky Opera debut), a popular non-aristocrat, elected to Genoa’s highest office. Simon’s popularity stems from his much-heralded defeat of the Barbary pirates, who had been terrorizing Genoa’s wealthy shipping industry.
The story then fast-forwards 25 years, well into Boccanegra’s reign, as he rediscovers his long-lost illegitimate daughter Amelia (Inna Dukach, also making her company premiere) and becomes embroiled in a new struggle for power that involves Amelia, her aristocratic grandfather, her lover and the party leaders who brought Simon into office 25 years earlier.
“You’ve got this political unrest, of Genoa and Italy. But beyond all of that, you have these five or six different perspectives, these points of view. Each person in this opera has something to gain and something to lose,” said Lefkowich. “So ultimately, there’s a heart to this piece, and that’s what we started to center on.”
“Simon Boccanegra” runs November 15 and 17 at the Brown Theatre.