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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834–1886)
La Gioconda (1876)
Deborah Voigt (soprano) – La Gioconda, singer; Elisabetta Fiorillo (mezzo) – Laura Adorno, a Genoese lady, Alvise’s wife; Carlo Colombara (bass) – Alvise Badoero, one of the heads of the State Inquisition; Ewa Podles (contralto) – La Cieca, Gioconda’s blind mother; Richard Margison (tenor) – Enzo Grimaldo, Genoese prince; Carlo Guelfi (baritone) – Barnaba, street singer; Josep Miguel Ribot (bass) – Zuàne, boatman in the regatta; Jon Plazaola (tenor) – Isèpo, public scrivener; Pavel Kudinov (bass) – Barnabotto, a pilot / a singer
Principal dancers: Àngel Corella, Letizia Giuliani
Cor Vivaldi – IPSI – Petits Cantors de Catalunya
Orquestra Simfònica I Cor Gran Teatre del Liceu/Daniele Callegari
Directed for stage by Pier Luigi Pizzi, Sets and Costume Design: Pier Luigi Pizzi, Lighting: Sergio Rossi, Directed for TV and Video by Pietro d’Agostino
rec. live, Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2005
Sound Formats: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, LPCM Stereo; Picture Format: 16:9
TDK DVWW-OPGIOC [2 DVDs: 174:00]


Among Verdi’s contemporary competitors Ponchielli was perhaps the only serious contender. Even so this came in the shape of only one work, La Gioconda in the wake of Verdi’s heyday, and five years after Aida which Verdi regarded as the end of his opera composing. It was not until he found the ideal librettist in Arrigo Boito that he seriously contemplated a comeback. Boito was a composer in his own right and at least Mefistofeles appears from time to time on stage and on recordings. It’s a competent work no doubt with scenes that are more than that – but as an author he was a genius, which also Ponchielli found out and he it was who created the libretto for La Gioconda, based on Victor Hugo’s play Angela, tyran de Padoue (1835). Since Boito was unwilling to appear with his real name the libretto was published under the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio, an anagram of his name.

The action takes place in 17th century Venice, with carnivals and festivities that form a colourful background to the cruel reality of "intrigue, revenge and betrayal" as Teresa Lloret puts it in the notes. The somewhat sprawling action is held together in this production through sets that are built on stairs in different configurations, dimly lit in blue-grey. Gondolas arrive and depart to mark the location and colourful crowds of people fill the stage during the public scenes. The opening chorus in particular is full of life with playing and running people and the chorus itself could be regarded as a jolly counterpart to the big chorus in the first act of Otello. Overall the crowd scenes are skilfully handled as is the celebrated ballet sequence Dance of the Hours. This is both thrilling and immensely decorative with impressive contributions from the two solo dancers Ángel Corella and Letizia Giuliani. The ballet is almost worth the price of the whole set.

When it comes to the real drama I am less sure of the success of this production. The director seems content to position the main characters in decorative poses, often sitting or lying on stairs and tables while singing and elsewhere purposelessly strolling. Where we would have expected more than a glimpse of the inside of the characters we are offered only façades. Of course Ponchielli’s music doesn’t have the depth of Verdi’s and so the characters remain cardboard puppets. In opera the librettist creates archetypes and it is the composer’s task to fill them with flesh and blood; this is where Ponchielli fails. I don’t dismiss his music, on the contrary I have for more than 35 years appreciated and frequently returned to this score for some thrilling arias and scenes, but they give a thrill for the moment. Where Verdi manages to keep the tension near boiling point Ponchielli often loses momentum and provides well written but empty transport sections. There is still a lot to enjoy.

The orchestra play quite well under the direction of Daniele Callegari, who makes the most of the big choral scenes where we are in for grand opera at its grandest. Elsewhere he can be content simply to accompany the proceedings. The strings are not as unanimous as they ideally should be in a few places but the cellos play with wonderful softness in the overture and the four horns set the dark mood of the last act at the beginning of that prelude.

La Gioconda is an opera that has to be cast in strength to make real impact. Ideally one needs six powerful world-class singers for the demanding main roles. This production can’t quite provide that, even though there is some first rate singing. Deborah Voigt as La Gioconda, in bright blue dress, has all the requisite power and sings with feeling but she can also be rather squally. She grows through the performance however and in Suicidio! in the last act she stands out for the great dramatic soprano she is. She is at times affected by what I believe is unfavourable placing of the microphones. As soon as singers move upstage they lose focus. A pity. Barnaba is very much the Iago of this opera and Carlo Guelfi has the sinister tone and appearance to suit the role, but he is dry-voiced and unsteady. The second act aria Pescator, affonda l’esca is however done with a suitable swagger.

Quite the best singing comes from Richard Margison, who besides finding a lot of nuance in his part has a still brilliant voice; the top notes ring out impressively. His reading of Cielo e mar may not be the subtlest we have heard but he starts it softly and the rest of the aria is really thrilling. He is even better in the ensuing duet with Laura with some fine lyrical singing. Unfortunately Elisabetta Fiorillo’s Laura is wobbly and strained though undoubtedly dramatic. Her set piece Stella del marinar is powerful but a steady tone eludes her, making most of the aria a liability. As her husband Carlo Colombara, whom I first heard on Morandi’s Naxos recording of Verdi’s Requiem and was deeply impressed, is a bit woolly in the first act but comes into his his own in the third where he cuts an imposing Alvise and sings the recitative and aria that open the act with dark steady tone.

Ewa Podles as La Gioconda’s blind mother La Cieca, gets the audience’s sympathy after the cruel treatment she is subjected to and the aria Voce di donna is sung with innate feeling.

Is this a recommendable set? It depends on your priorities. The sets are beautiful and evocative, the direction and the acting under-nourished, the crowd scenes impressive, the sound full and atmospheric but the voices are too often unfavourably balanced. The Dance of the Hours is a must-see. While the singing is variable the production has a good Gioconda, a fine Alvise and a thrilling and nuanced Enzo. I don’t think I will return too often to it as a whole, but with 55 cue points it is easy to pick and choose among the goodies and avoid the baddies.

Göran Forsling


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