Woe and Whoa! At Rome’s Gioconda

ItalyItaly  Ponchielli, La Gioconda:  Teatro dell’Opera, Rome.  Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Rome Opera.  Conductor, Roberto Abbado.  23.10.2012 (JB)
Co-production with Verona, Barcelona and Madrid with sets and costumes by PierLuigi Pizzi
Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani
Choreographer, Gheorghe Iancu
Mime movement, Roberto Pizzuto
Lighting,  Vincenzo Raponi

La Gioconda:  Elisabete Matos
Laura Adorono:  Ekaterina Sermenchuk
Alvise Badoera:  Carlo Cigni
Enzo Grimaldo:  Aquiles Machado
La Cieca (Gioconda’s blind mother):  Elisabetta Fiorillo

photo credit: Silvia Lell

La Gioconda is a tricky opera to get right; one minute, Ponchielli seems to be taking a (historically) backward look at the easy charm of Donizetti and at the next, forward to the obsessive, heated melodrama of big-scale late Verdi.  With the right conductor these two extremes can delightfully and unexpectedly morph  from one to the other.  But Roberto Abbado, on the rostrum at the Rome Opera, had not understood this; he plays the score with a grim determination to squeeze every ounce of drama out of every vocal and orchestral note: all very well for the melodrama, but the charm goes out of the window, and the resulting heavy-handedness becomes tiring and wearisome on the ear.  At the end of the reckoning, that is about as destructive as you could possibly get with poor Ponchielli, who was twenty years younger than Verdi as well as the teacher of Puccini and (briefly) Mascagni.

Between illnesses and other indispositions, La Gioconda  has been a nightmare for the theatre’s extremely capable Casting Director.  This is a co-production between Rome, Barcelona, Madrid and Verona.  I hope the other three theatres  had greater fortune with their casts.  I am reporting on the Rome opening night.  And it pains me to do so.  It may be cruel to suggest it, but the four lead singers in Rome had more in common with dogs than singers: more barking –snatching at notes and failing to get onto them- rather than actually singing them.  Not a minimum sense of the Ponchielli line in any of the four.  They were not helped by Maestro Abbado, who also lacked a sense of thrust and pacing.

Like every other major house, the Rome Opera has discreet amplification.  But for those below a certain level of technical competence this is an almost useless aid.  It won’t give you a voice where there isn’t one.  And Ponchielli was writing for those who could sing before the invention of the microphone.  I well remember my friends in the brass section of the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence telling me how they were blowing their guts out in the Suicide Scene and still they couldn’t hear themselves over the roar of Ghena Dimitrova’s Suicidio!  And I should tell you that I was sitting in the Sovrintendente’s box at that performance, which is just at one side of the stage, and the lady was making less effort to produce that thrilling roar than I am using to type this comment.  Fluently focused technique of that kind comes maybe once in a lifetime.

Contrast that with Rome’s Elisabete Matos.  By the time she got to the io of Suicidio!  her voice had disappeared: no, that is not dimmed, but disappeared.  The truth is that below B, she doesn’t have a voice at all; not a weak  singing voice but an inexistent  one: she resorts to a speaking  of the notes with a tragic and unsuccessful attempt to get somewhere near the pitch which Ponchielli indicates.  Sorry, madame, but until you find a voice, no form of amplification will be of any use to you.

Carlo Cigni was performing for the indisposed Roberto Scandiuzzi the role of Alvise, the baddy, catcher for the Inquisition.  Mr Cigni sounded as though he had been badly affected by the Venice fog (dry ice) which Pizzi thoughtfully provided for the suggestive opening scene; something truly nasty had got into his throat, distorting any possibility of vocal focus or clear enunciation of words.  These last, by the way, are by no less than Arrigo Boito, writing under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.  That is a very good reason why they shouldn’t  be chewed to destruction or rendered incomprehensible.  Both happened here.

The Venezuelan tenor, Aquiles Machado, as Enzo, the hapless lover caught between Laura and La Gioconda, also has a zero lower register.  Above B, his voice has a certain easy charm and might work well in lighter repertoire, but Enzo calls for vocal weight and drama which his voice simply does not have.  Cielo e mar  was a travesty.

These vocal inadequacies were completed by Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Laura, whose L’amo come il fugor del creato  did not begin to make the musical and dramatic effect that this number can  offer to the right mezzo.

Elisabetta  Fiorillo in the minor role of Gioconda’s blind mother was stylistically perfect and delivered her one aria tinged with exactly the right pathos.  That  justly brought the most resounding applause of the evening.

It is rare that the Dance of the Hours steals the show in La Gioconda  but that is what happened here.  And this largely on account of the virtuosity of the two star dancers, Angel Corella and Letizia Giuliani.  Mr Corella’s pirouettes were breathtaking; he literally knocked the spots off them.  See photo.  If only this virtuosity, so earnestly requested by Ponchielli, could have been heard from the singers!

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s staging has already been seen at the Arena of Verona and the Operas of Barcelona and Madrid (from whence the outstanding ballerini).  As always with Pizzi’s sets and costumes there is dignity and elegance, with the drama, on this occasion, dominated by greys with some skilfully placed reds and yellows among the masses.  The evocation of the Venice Carnival worked well too, striking just the right balance of forced jollity and  fateful omens.

Jack Buckley