The Kentucky Opera performed its new production of Guiseppe Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” last weekend. The story of an eponymous populist sea captain vaulted to political power by scheming partisans revolves around the intersection of political treachery and his tumultuous relationship with his aristocratic lover’s family.
Verdi set “Simon Boccanegra” against the backdrop of political and social upheaval in 14th century Genoa, Italy. The Kentucky Opera’s brand new production moves the historical storyline up to the early 20th century, beginning in 1919 with the end of World War I and Boccanegra’s rise to power, then fast-forwarding to 1943, when the Fascist regime in Italy began to crumble.
It’s a time period with which, thanks to popular culture and history texts, contemporary audiences have more than a passing familiarity, removing one of the barriers to entry of many historical operas — the lack of meaningful context. While there are still references in the plot that don’t immediately click (the mysterious “Guelphs,” for example, enemies of Boccanegra’s administration), those details are handily folded into the larger historical context.
That context is provided chiefly by the visuals, namely costume and set design, but those choices create a visual vocabulary that director David Lefkowich employs throughout the production. Lovely period costumes by Holly Jenkins-Evans shine against the backdrop of Peter Harrison’s set, which uses the hard corners and stark lines of classic Fascist architecture to its utmost advantage. The council chambers and Boccanegra’s office really work those hard diagonals, underscoring the direct, violent line to power attempted and maintained by the brutal politics practiced during this time. And Harrison’s public square, the backdrop for the Prologue that sees Boccanegra first elected to Genoa’s highest office, is overseen by a softly-lit Pietà sculpture, a visual that is echoed in the final scene when Boccanegra (Malcolm MacKenzie) dies of poisoning in his daughter’s arms.
Lefkowich moves his performers around Harrison’s spaces with a cinematographer’s eye. The Prologue ends with an election-day crowd, egged on by political operatives Paolo (Troy Cook) and Pietro (John Arnold), brandishing weapons, flags and a giant banner that proclaims “SI SI SIMON” emblazoned with Boccanegra’s face. Act I, in which Boccanegra‘s long-lost illegitimate daughter Amelia (Inna Dukach) reminisces about her childhood by the sea, opens with Amelia framed by the tall pillars of her adopted family’s estate with an expansive view of the sea behind her.
Overall, the updated staging does wonders for translating this opera into terms a contemporary audience can easily digest so they can focus on Verdi’s lovely score and the wonderful performances of the singers. Perhaps this production will inspire other mid-sized companies to tackle this rarely-performed Verdi piece with confidence