Is it something in the air on that beautiful peninsula? Italian politics is an inexhaustible seam to be mined by artists - its conspiracies, its grotesqueries, its teetering instabilities, from Caesar to Berlusconi and all points in between. Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (at the Hackney Empire and on tour) was written in 1889, originally set in the 14th century, updated in this version to the early 1970s and borrows an aesthetic from The Conformist, Bertolucci's magnificent film set in the 1930s. Of course, pride and ambition are so deeply seated in the human psyche that any period anywhere in the world can furnish such stories, but seldom is the canvas so vast and the emotions so raw as they are in Italy.
Boccanegra (by now an insecure Prime Minister) in his time as a streetfighting man, had loved but not married Maria, who bore him a daughter and was locked away for her shame, dying of a broken heart and earning Boccanegra the implacable enmity of her father, Fiesco. The child was left with a old woman whose death led to her adoption by Fiesco under an assumed name, believed to be an unknown orphan. As the populace rise against Boccanegra's regime, past merges with the present and he must choose between a future based on realpolitik or real love.
It's not an easy plot to follow, but the subtitles (it's sung in Italian) help, as do the no holds-barred emotional outpourings on stage. Craig Smith's (Boccanegra) world-weariness, Keel Watson's (Fiesco) seething hate and Charne Rochford's (Adorno) bitter anguish convey the story at least as much as the libretto. As does music that swoops and soars as love and hate battle for supremacy. In this sea of alpha male testosterone (there's a reason why the word "macho" comes from the Italian) Elizabeth Llewellyn's (Amelia) sensational, fragile, tragic singing reminds us of the light in a world darkened by hubris.
In sharp contrast to ETO's Cosi Fan Tutte (also on tour with Donizetti's Siege of Calais), Simon Boccanegra is difficult, brutal and offers a bleak view of the human condiiton. But, from the moment Michael Rosewall lifts his baton to the deafening applause at the curtain, it also pitches you into a cauldron of boiling rage and love - the music, the singing and the acting raising the temperature higher and higher. If you like leaving a theatre wrung out by the experience, this is for you.