RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda - lyric drama in four acts (1876)
La Gioconda, a street singer - Deborah Voigt, (soprano); Enzo Grimaldi, exiled Genoese prince in love with Laura – Richard Margison (tenor); Barnaba, sadistic spy who lusts after Gioconda - Carlo Guelfi (baritone); Laura Adorno, wife of Alvise and loved by Enzo - Elisabetta Fiorillo (mezzo); Alvise, Nobleman and one of the Heads of the State Inquisition - Carlo Colombara (bass); La Cieca, blind mother of Gioconda - Ewa Podles (contralto)
Principal Dancers: Angel Corella and Letizia Giulana
Orchestra, Chorus and Corps de Ballet of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona/Daniele Callegari
rec. live, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, October 2005
Choreographer: Gheorghe Iancu
Direction, set and costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
DVD Director: Pietro d’Agostino
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, DVD Format: 2 x DVD 9, NTSC, Vision: 16:9. Colour
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Catalan.
Notes and synopsis: Italian, English, German, French
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107291 [2 DVDs: 174:00]
Twenty or so years ago, the opera La Gioconda, set by Ponchielli to a libretto by Arrigo Boito from Hugo’s drama of 1835, was voted one of the works that London opera-goers 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 – excluding, that is, the lovely ballet known as The Dance of the Hours. By contrast, La Gioconda features fairly frequently at Verona where it is, I believe, the eighth most performed work. The production featured on the present set was premiered at that venue earlier in 2005 (see review). It was in the eponymous role at Verona in 1947 that Callas famously 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 see review) and the second in various EMI collections of her opera recordings (see review).
La Gioconda is 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, La Cieca, 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 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.
La Gioconda is an operatic work of its time when Italian composers were looking north over the Alps at Wagner and his influence. It is 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 have greater popularity and are more often staged.
Pier Luigi Pizzi’s monochromic dark sets are simple, evocative and dominated, as so often in his productions, by flights of stairs by which persons arrive or escape, in this case over misty and wintry canals. Except for La Gioconda herself, in a vivid royal blue, the costumes are in period and predominantly dark until the dances of the carnival when colours are vivid and contrasting. Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a singer’s opera. Its date of composition falls between Verdi’s Aida and Otello and requires similar voices for its principals, other than the tenor that is.
There are plenty of big voices in this idiomatic production whose various neo-minimalist sets are eerily realistic and provide an ideal setting for the story. The boats that come and go add realism whilst the conflagration that accompanies the conclusion of act two, as Ezio sets fire to his own boat to avoid capture, is a coup de théâtre (DVD 1 CH.31). Big voices are called for and that is what is provided. As Gioconda, American soprano Deborah Voigt sings strongly and lives the agonies of the role in face and body, forever trying to invest meaning via her acting and singing even when only walking the misty environs. If she lacks the Italianate warmth of Tebaldi on the 1967 Decca recording of a role the great diva never assayed on stage, and one of her last studio recordings, few other sopranos have. Importantly, she has no fears, nor does she show any strain, in her big aria Suicidio as Gioconda contemplates her fate consequent on saving her rival and Ezio (DVD 2 CH.17). As her desired lover Ezio, Richard Margison with black costume, thigh boots and shaven head, looks more the thug than the romantic lover. He is strong-toned, rather stark and more of the school of can belto even though, as he shows in the last act, as Ezio and Laura pay tribute to Gioconda, he can sing softly and with some graceful phrasing. Margison completely neglects the reflective reverie of his big solo Cielo e mar but hits the money notes with security (DVD 1 CH.20). Carlo Guelfi starts somewhat unsteadily, but quickly improves to give a formidable interpretation, vocally as well as acted, of the evil, scheming and cruel Barnaba. His credo, is not unlike that which Boito, the librettist here, introduced ten years later when setting Shakespeare’s Othello for Verdi’s penultimate opera. Both give ample opportunity for a true and vocally well-coloured and covered baritone to really paint a character; Guelfi takes it with both hands (DVD 1 CH.14).
As the nobleman, Alvise, whose wife loves another and intends to elope with him, Carlo Colombara sings with great sensitivity and expression. In his measured acting of the role, he conveys his frustration at the situation as well as his own position in the local society along with the power it gives him (DVD 2 CHs.1-5). As his wife, Elisabetta Fiorillo, who sang La Cieca in the Verona performances of this production in the summer of 2005, sings with warm tone and manages to bring sympathy to a rather poorly sketched character. The role of La Cieca is rather brief, but allows a formidable singing actress to have a real impact. That is what is achieved here by the formidable Polish contralto Ewa Podles who fully deserves her enthusiastic applause at the curtain.
The biggest applause of the evening, on completion of The Dance of the Hours (DVD 2 CH.10), was reserved for principal dancers, Angel Corella and Letizia Giulana, particularly for the latter. Minimally costumed in a thong and diaphanous body stocking, her lithe body, along with well-sculpted thoracic accoutrements and superb choreographed interpretation, add an erotic dimension to Ponchielli’s melodic invention (DVD 2 CH.10).
Despite some reservations, this well staged performance by veteran Pier Luigi Pizzi, under the idiomatic and well-paced baton of Daniele Callegari and superbly caught for video by Tiziano Mancini, will not be bettered on film in the near future. Add a good chorus and corps de ballet and I suggest lovers of the work should not hesitate but add this set to their collection now.
Robert J Farr
Rarely performed nowadays, Ponchielli’s best known opera is unlikely to get a better-staged, sung and danced performance than it does here.