La Traviata, Teatro di San Carlo, Naples; Simon Boccanegra, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

The two women to my left check their mobile phones every five minutes, hold whispered conversations, and rifle through their handbags noisily. This would matter less if Germont were not busy manipulating Violetta into leaving Alfredo a few metres away. A couple of hundred years ago, of course, the audience at Naples’ venerable San Carlo opera house would have been buying snacks, feeling up chorus-girls, and pulling off political coups in the back boxes while the opera went on. Naples has a long tradition of making music history while getting on with life. Even so, it is hard to understand how anyone can multi-task when Carmen Giannattasio is singing with such well-judged phrasing, such a melting tone, such a compelling build-up of tension.

La traviata, the season-opener for Naples’ ravishing 275-year-old opera house, is a major undertaking for the beleaguered company. With its financial instabilities more or less resolved, the house has invested considerable resources in a high-carat staging, with a top-drawer cast and a big-name stage director. Turkish-Italian Ferzan Özpetek is better known for his films, and has only tried his hand at opera once before – an Aida in Florence that met with mixed responses. His Traviata staging is a visually opulent yet strictly conservative affair, with a few Turkish touches in Alessandro Lai’s costumes.

The highlights are musical. Conductor Michele Mariotti makes clear from the opening bars that this is his Traviata, with a raft of unconventional tempi which he argues convincingly. The orchestra plays well for him. Both Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo look and sound insecure and sing sharp in the first act, but they warm up as the opera progresses, with a committed second act and a conclusion of shattering emotional power.

A little further north, in Rome, the Teatro dell’Opera has also gone all-out on a Verdian season-opener, in this case the lesser-known but infinitely better Simon Boccanegra (1881 version), with Riccardo Muti, honorary director for life, on the podium. Like the young Mariotti, Muti makes this Verdi entirely his own, but unlike Mariotti, the septuagenarian holds every aspect of the evening so firmly in his grip that it is hard to know whether to be thrilled or alarmed. Muti would surely have had a hand in the fact that so little happens in Adrian Noble’s risibly old-fashioned production, with singers positioned firmly forwards, to gaze at Muti like rabbits caught in headlights. Dante Ferretti, who also supplied the Naples sets, has come up with a cellophane sea and plastic-lawn topiary that come in just short of self-mockery, and a cast of young or lesser-known singers were surely Muti’s own solution for a Boccanegra that would sound good without bursting the strained Roman coffers.

And sound good it most certainly does. From the dark but strangely tender undulations of the opening bars to the violent string rushes when the rabble bursts in on the Genoese senate, Muti exerts absolute control not only over his musical forces, but also over his audience – no fiddling or whispers here. Everyone is united in the taut excitement of this political thriller, and everyone does exactly what Muti wants. After the inglorious end of his 19-year reign further north at La Scala, Muti presumably knows more than enough about the darker side of Italian politics. He deals now with lesser forces, but sometimes it is better to hear adequate players surpass themselves than it is to hear superior musicians play by the book. Muti’s Boccanegra reads a little like a dispatch to his former home, each letter etched with deadly precision.

George Petean gives a solid performance in the title role, Maria Agresta makes a reliable Maria, Dmitry Beloselskiy and Quinn Kelsey both find some wonderfully dark colours as Fesco and Paolo, but it is Francesco Meli’s no-holds-barred Adorno who takes the evening’s vocal honours.

Two musically impressive, scenically antediluvian evenings from two venerable Italian institutions fortunate enough to have escaped the latest round of government funding-cut carnage. Worth the trip.

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