New National Theatre’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ Brings Doge’s Tale to Tokyo

©Rikimaru Hotta/New National Theatre, Tokyo
A scene from “Simon Boccanegra” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo

Opera is an all-embracing spectacle, uniting music, art and theater. With such breadth, even the most renowned opera houses can struggle to perfect each element.

But a new production of “Simon Boccanegra” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo was wondrously well-rounded. The production’s world premiere was held at the theater on Nov. 15, opening a five-show run.

The opera with a prologue and three acts by Verdi, written in the middle phase of his career, premiered in 1857 but was later revised. It may not be performed as often as the composer’s “La Traviata” or “Rigoletto,” but opera fans admire its insight into an honorable man tormented by a tragic fate, amid political conflict between plebeians and patricians.

The protagonist is based on a historical figure who went from pirate to first doge of Genoa in the 14th century. In the opera, he becomes head of state directly after the death of his lover, who had been locked up by her father, and the disappearance of his infant daughter. Fast-forward 25 years, and his daughter, called Amelia by her adopted family, is in love with the young gentleman Gabriele, though she doesn’t know his father is the political foe of her own biological father.

Kudos to Kazushi Ono, the artistic director of the theater, for bringing this outstanding production team together. The coproduction with the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and Teatro Real in Madrid was produced by Pierre Audi, who has directed the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France since 2018 and previously led the Dutch National Opera for many years.

Taking inspiration from the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, who killed himself by plunging into a volcano, Audi expressed Simon’s loneliness and his precarious political state by hanging a volcano upside-down over the stage. The grandly symbolic set was designed by Anish Kapoor, a renowned artist in his own right who had worked with Audi twice before.

The production was dramatically lit by Jean Kalman and featured part-modern, part-traditional costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic.

Ono conducted with deft changes of pace and volume, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit astutely followed his lead.

The production was also blessed with a superb international cast. Italian baritone Roberto Frontali, who in May wowed the theater as the titular character in “Rigoletto,” gave an accomplished performance as Simon. Russian soprano Irina Lungu also made a welcome return to the theater as Amelia. And how touching was their reunion as father and long-lost daughter.

Riccardo Zanellato’s deep bass was perfect as Fiesco, father to Simon’s doomed lover, and Luciano Ganci’s passionate tenor was well-suited to Gabriele. Simone Alberghini skillfully sang the part of Paolo, a traitorous councilor to Simon. Members of the New National Theatre Chorus contributed to the production vocally, of course, but also by crawling across the stage in one scene.

All in all, it was a production that will have to be revived before long.