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What is it with Washington Opera and Verdi? Hand the company Rossini or Puccini, baroque or bel canto, something old and French or new and American, and you can expect a credible, often lively production. (They even breathe life into those goofy zarzuelas Domingo is so fond of.) But Verdi, arguably the Shakespeare of opera—certainly of Italian opera—throws them into the artistic equivalent of a grand mal seizure. The last 20 years have brought us a cheesy Trovatore, an ill-conceived Ballo in Maschera, a brace of underrealized Traviatas, a creaky Luisa Miller, a woefully miscast Otello—and I’m forgetting a few. If WashOp’s current Simon Boccanegra is a triumph by company Verdi standards, it’s a mixed bag by anyone else’s.

Not that Boccanegra is an easy work to bring off. Dark and brooding, this sporadically revived opera offers few of the hummable tunes and little of the infectious energy of the composer’s more mainstream work. The score, moreover, has something of a split personality: It speaks in intimate tones much of the time, but relies on forceful orchestral effects and infusions of big choral sound to punch home its key moments. It’s also a bear to cast, most of the prime roles designed for basses and baritones with rich, booming voices and real acting chops (a breed not exactly thick on the ground), while the tenor and soprano are relegated to supporting roles. The libretto is at best improbable and at worst ridiculous, featuring a Byzantine network of mistaken identities, an abduction, several attempted assassinations, and a slow poisoning, all centering around a Genoese pirate-turned-doge—think Jesse “the Body” Ventura, circa 1360—named Simon Blackmouth.

But this is late-career Verdi we’re talking about, which means music that ennobles these pasteboard heroes and villains and fleshes out all the plot silliness. Verdi was nearing his zenith as an orchestrator when he wrote Boccanegra. The conspiratorial quiet hanging over the score undulates with the waters of Genoa’s harbor and the fitful motions of its citizen mob. Surprising instrumentation arrests the attention at every turn, like the radiant string figurations underpinning Amelia’s Act 1 aria, or the bursts of trilling brass punctuating the council chamber scene (a jewel of Verdi’s mature ensemble writing). This is one of the Italian master’s most beautiful works, echoing his middle-period masterpieces and vividly foreshadowing the late, great Otello.

For directors and singers sensitive to its nuances, there’s moving drama to be mined from this opera—from, say, the reuniting of Simon and his daughter Amelia, or the reconciliation between Simon and his lifelong enemy, Fiesco. Ian Judge, the director of WashOp’s Covent Garden-imported production, has a jones for moving large groups of people from one side of the stage to the other and back again, regularly creating and resolving traffic jams. He seems less adept at pulling credible acting from his ensemble, though I’d wager these performers are just so many stones he’s expected to draw blood from. These days, it’s hard enough finding singers up to Verdi’s vocal demands, let alone those who look and act their parts convincingly. The singing in this present outing is, generally speaking, pretty good. The acting is dreadful.

Simon Estes, as Boccanegra, is a good 15 years past his prime, but still has a thrilling set of pipes. I used to think him underused by opera houses and recording companies. So did he, evidently, citing in interviews a pervasive bias against African-American opera singers. Seeing him again, for the first time in over a decade, I couldn’t help wondering whether some of the neglect in his case might have been due to monochromatic tone color, adenoidal hectoring at big moments, odd vowels, and a complete disengagement with his fellow singers and with his own character. Estes appears to have no investment in anything he’s doing onstage except clearing his throat, straightening his costume, staring at the conductor, and robotically moving through his blocking.

The rest of the cast members kick in their share of strengths and weaknesses. Bruno Pola’s serviceable baritone and literal phrasing do little to illuminate the plot’s chief baddie, Paolo, but his Monty Pythonesque eye rolling is a real hoot to watch. Marcello Giordani sounds terrific as Gabriele Adorno. One of the best Italian tenors on the current scene, he cuts a handsome enough figure and has less of that deer-in-the-headlights quality here than he did as Romeo last season. Kallen Esperian as Amelia is lovely to look at, possesses a respectable Verdi soprano (though her wiry top is worrisome), and actually attempts to act. What a shame she has to cock her head back, bug out her eyes, and turn her mouth into the Holland Tunnel on every damn high note. Eric Owens pretty much stands and grimaces as old Fiesco, but his smooth, sonorous bass, while lacking in power, is a lovely thing to hear.

The production scores big in the podium work of WashOp music director Heinz Fricke. It’s hard to predict which operas will engage Fricke’s sympathies. He’s given us a soulless Flying Dutchman, a luminous Ariadne and Rosenkavalier, a lead-footed Barber of Seville, and a riveting Tiefland. In Boccanegra, Fricke finds the tenderness, the spiky drama, the idiomatic give-and-take of the lyrical writing. He keeps the music moving, but, when he needs to, he stops to smell the poison.

Set designer John Gunter’s oversized gilt doors and pillars tilt at a precarious angle throughout the opera—the whole of Genoa thrown off kilter by the sinister, political maneuverings of its leaders—while an unfurled Renaissance map of the city encircles the action. Scenes are changed by tracking in proscenium-high, blood-red drapes, or by revealing a strikingly realistic ocean backdrop, alive with restless waves and seen from overhead to give the illusion of a Genoa floating in orbit above it. Gorgeous sets that make an uncompromising statement about the opera they serve: Dare we expect more of this from the company? Nigel Levings’ lights serve the scenery evocatively and Deirdre Clancy’s costumes move the action, with vividly saturated color, to Verdi’s own mid-19th-century Italy.

Most of the WashOp’s season is, as usual, sold out. But as I write this review, tickets are still available for Simon Boccanegra. Try to catch this dark beauty of Verdi’s. Look past the awful acting and you’ll hear a well sung, lovingly conducted performance, with one of the most exciting designs this company has risked in years.

CP