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Friday, February 19, 2016, 09:02

Requiem for a ruler

By Peter Gordon

Italy’s Teatro Regio Torino brings some of Verdi’s most-moving compositions to Hong Kong Arts Festival, which opens tonight. Peter Gordon on why these should not be missed.

Requiem for a ruler

A city of shining towers against a foaming cerulean sea, yet riven by factionalism, a dysfunctional legislature, conflicts of identity and loyalty between a city and the broader country of which it is a part, mobs that break into council meetings, with an unloved leader, challenged from all sides.

It’s Genoa of the mid-14th century as portrayed in Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra . The opera will be performed by the renowned Teatro Regio Torino — Turin’s royal theater — on Feb 26, 28 and March 1 at HK Cultural Centre. The shows are a part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, which opens tonight.

“An opera can seem like a rarified, elite art form,” says Antonello de Riu, Italy’s Consul General in Hong Kong, “but if Hong Kong people give it a chance, they will find much that resonates.”

The Consul General notes that medieval Genoa had much in common with Hong Kong. It was a maritime trading city with connections throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and across the Black Sea. “Banking, that mainstay of today’s Hong Kong”, de Riu continues, “was arguably invented in Genoa.”

Simon Boccanegra is based on the first Doge (ruler) of Genoa, written and first performed in 1857, in the lead-up to the Italian unification in 1861. Indeed, the opera’s most famous “Council Chamber” scene contains an appeal to the citizens to think of themselves as Italians, and not just as Genoese.

Despite the political conflicts and the ruler’s struggles to cope with public expectations, Simon Boccanegra — unsurprisingly, for this is Verdi, after all — is also a profound psychological drama, full of romance and action, delivered with searing and soaring music.

The venerable Teatro Regio production follows the music, evoking the sea and sky, Genoa’s gothic architecture and the pomp that surrounds the Doge. The production’s director, Silvano Bussotti, has said that he took great care in the design, choosing a fabric that, depending on the light, “can be the stone of the walls of palaces or churches, yet still retain lightness and transparency, against the backdrop of an ever-present sea”.

Requiem for a ruler
Conductors Roberto Abbado (left) and Gianandrea Noseda will interpret two of Verdi’s most-memorable masterpieces for a Hong Kong audience.

Conductor Roberto Abbado, one of the best-known names in opera, has visited Hong Kong before, most recently to conduct La Traviata , also by Verdi. On his last visit he seemed quite taken by the city’s “beautiful bay and many islands” besides “the youth of the population, including those that attend the performances”.

The character of Simon Boccanegra will be reprised by the experienced baritone George Petean, who recently also sung the role in Rome. His long-lost and rediscovered daughter Amelia — in this opera, like in the more-famous Rigoletto, the father’s love for the daughter outshines all others — will be sung by Erika Grimaldi, who performed the role in Turin. Hong Kong audiences may remember her from a well-received La Bohème a few years ago.

The opera’s most famous aria, Il lacerato spirito (my lacerated soul), is sung by Amelia’s grandfather Jacopo Fiesco, the man who would have been Boccanegra’s father-in-law, had the then Doge-to-be married Amelia’s mother before Fiesco snatched her back in fury (the plot, needless to say, is intricate). The role of Fiesco will be played by bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, usually heard at leading houses from La Scala to the Metropolitan.

Simon Boccanegra shows a different and more contemplative Verdi than in such earlier and arguably more tuneful works as Rigoletto and La Traviata that are more familiar. The success of performances of Simon Boccanegra , with its uncommon baritone lead role, often rests on the strength of the ensembles and the integration of music and drama rather than individual arias.

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