or so ago, La Gioconda was voted one of the works that
London operagoers would like to see staged in the capital.
London didn’t get a staged production but had to make do with
concert performances in 2000 and again in September 2004.
In over 45 years of regular opera-going I have only managed
one staged production, given by Opera North with financial
support from the Peter Moores Foundation. It excluded the
lovely ballet known as The Dance of the Hours. By contrast,
La Gioconda features very regularly at Verona where
it is, I believe, the eighth most performed work. It was in
the eponymous role at Verona in 1947 that Callas made her
operatic debut in Italy and began to be noticed. Although
Callas only ever sang the part of Gioconda thirteen times
on stage she recorded it twice. The earlier recording is available
on Naxos (Naxos Historical 8.110302-04).
involves a convoluted story of passion, intrigue, violence
and ultimately tragedy. It is set in 17th century
Venice; a republic presided over by a Doge and the notorious
‘Council of Ten’. Gioconda, a street singer with a blind mother,
loves Enzo who does not return her love as he is in love with
Laura, wife of the powerful nobleman Alvise. Barnaba, a spy
of ‘The Council’, lusts after Gioconda. In revenge at her
spurning his advances, Barnaba has Gioconda’s blind mother,
La Cieca, arrested accusing her of witchcraft. Laura pleads
La Cieca’s case with her husband and secures her release.
In return, Gioconda helps Laura and Enzo elope and escapes
Alvise’s revenge by promising herself to Barnaba. When he
comes to claim her she kills herself. The libretto is by Arrigo
Boito after Victor Hugo’s drama of 1835. It was first performed
at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 8 April 1876.
is an opera of convoluted melodrama, but it is a work
packed with melody and motif. The motifs might not have Wagnerian
complexity, nor the music the dramatic cohesion of a Verdian
masterpiece, nonetheless it has qualities that are far superior
to many later so-called verismo works that are more regularly
Pier Luigi Pizzi’s
sets here are simple and evocative. A wide reflective cyclorama
sits above a raked staircase set centre stage with smaller
steps and bridges over ‘canals’ to the side. Various figures
are silhouetted at the top of the stairs and subtle lighting
effects add to the dark nature of the action (D2 Ch.6). Lighting
is used to spectacular effect to represent the burning of
Enzo’s ship as he fires it rather than surrender it (D1 Ch.20).
Costumes are in period and predominantly dark, even a little
dull except for Gioconda in royal blue and Laura in white.
Even these splashes of colour are covered with a dark cloak
much of the time. The bright reds of the Carneval! Baccanal!
(D1 Ch.11) are a contrast as the crowd dance in a furlana,
the priest calls the vesper prayers and Gioconda despairs
in the arms of her mother. The production of the whole is
well handled for the television screen by Tiziano Mancini
with sensitivity to the various dramatic situations and persona
a singer’s opera. Its date of composition falls between Verdi’s
Aida and Otello and requires similar voices
for its principals. Of present spinto sopranos few have bigger
voices than Andrea Gruber as La Gioconda. She has heft,
colour and dramatic intensity. Since I last saw her a little
unsteadiness has joined those attributes when she puts too
much pressure on her voice, but she sings and acts with involvement
and sincerity. Her rendering of Suicidio (D2 Ch.12)
combines the best of her attributes. Unsteadiness, to the
point of wobble, afflicts Elisabetta Fiorillo’s La Cieca whilst
the incipient beat in Eildiko Komlosi’s voice as Laura must
be of concern for a relatively young singer. She is either
singing too many heavy roles or in venues a size too large
for this stage of her career. In my review of her Amneris
in Robert Wilson’s production of Aida from October
2004 I noticed a similar failing (see review).
Quality voices of her type in this dramatic repertoire, allied
to good acting skills, are few on the ground. I hope she recognises
the problem and addresses it before it becomes a wide vibrato
and then a wobble. As far as this production is concerned,
that beat in the voice apart, her portrayal is effective and
of the men were prone to any vocal unsteadiness. Marco Berti
is a firm favourite at this venue. His tenor is strong and
firmly focused but used with very little sensitivity. This
was never more apparent than in his singing of Enzo’s showpiece
aria Cielo el mar (D1 Ch. 15). He fluffed the opening
but then sang as if reciting a telephone directory, his singing
monochrome and lacking tonal variety or expression. The audience
loved it. Both the Barnaba of Alberto Mastromarino and the
Alvise of Carlo Colombara are sung with firm expressive tone.
If Mastromarino’s rather portly figure detracted from Barnaba’s
menace, his tonal variety and characterisation fully reflected
the sadistic character of a role that makes Scarpia seem a
relatively gentle seducer. His Pescator, affondo l’escea
(D1 Ch.13) as Barnaba tells the fishermen to cast their bait
was full of his inner meaning. His cold rage as he bends over
Gioconda’s body half shouting ‘Yesterday your mother insulted
me! I drowned her’ and realising she cannot hear him,
he leaves, is chilling in its histrionic effect (D2 Ch.15).
Carlo Colombara’s Alvise is also strongly sung and acted.
He is physically imposing and sings with good diction and
a wide range of expression in Si, morir ella (D 2 Ch.1).
He is a very definite plus among today’s Italian basso cantante.
His vocal and acting abilities are very evident and a great
strength in this production.
The Danza delle
Ore (D2 Ch.7) is performed by prima ballerina Letizia
Giuliani and male lead Robert Bolle accompanied by a number
of ballerinas in different coloured floating dresses. They
all started at the top of the raked central staircase and
with Sergio Rossi’s lighting their representation of the music
is magical. This musical representation, like the rest of
the performance, owes much to the conducting of Danato Renzetti.
There seems to
be an increasing number of native Italians with a natural
feel for opera as indicated at Pesaro as well as Verona and
in the country’s lyric theatres. With many live performances
appearing on DVD and CD this is a particularly welcome development.
Renzetti’s sympathetic and idiomatic conducting of La Gioconda
gives this underrated work its due, as does this staging.
The sound is clear and well balanced and Dynamic’s high definition
picture is spectacular.
Robert J Farr