Grand Voices in Chamber-size La Gioconda

SwedenSweden Amilcare PONCHIELLI La Gioconda. Soloists, Instrumentalists and Chorus, Mette Juliane Christensen (piano & conductor) at Dala Floda Opera Festival, Dala Floda, Dalecarlia 5.8.2015 (GF)

La Gioconda – Leena Malkki
Barnaba – Bengt Krantz
Laura – Ingeborg Børch
Enzo Grimaldo – Francisco Almanza
Alvise Badoero – Michael MacKinnon
La Cieca – Ulrika Tenstam

Directed by Peter Bäckström
Sets by Peter Bäckström, Hans Roupe and Maria Hegborn
Costume design and masks by Mimi Terris
Lighting design by Hans Roupe

La Gioconda is the only opera by Ponchielli that has survived until the present day. Based on a play by Victor Hugo and with a libretto by Tobia Gorrio, an anagram of Arrigo Boito, known as the librettist for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and also a composer in his own right – his Mefistofele is still played today. He seems to have been dissatisfied with the Gioconda libretto, which is unfair, since it is in fact very good and his verses inspired Ponchielli to a string of pearls of memorable arias: Enzo Grimaldo’s Cielo e mar, La Gioconda’s touching Suicidio!, La Cieca’s Voce di donna, Laura’s Stella del marinar and the dramatic arias for Barnaba and Alvise – meaty challenges for strong-voiced and expressive singing-actors. And these are only a few of the highlights; there are several duets and ensembles to savour and Ponchielli’s orchestra glows with enticing melodies and darkish colours.

This last aspect was toned down in OperaFabriken’s (The Opera Factory) recent production of the opera, which has been touring the southernmost part of Sweden since the beginning of July and will continue until mid-September. But they made a guest-appearance at the opera festival in Dala Floda in Central Sweden – a nice little trip of 700 kilometres and then the same distance back the next day! With an instrumental ensemble consisting of piano, clarinet, two violins and cello and a chorus of four voices, also doubling in comprimario roles, this is a chamber-size version of a grand opera – and it works surprisingly well. Since they play in small venues with limited space the format is out of necessity, sets and props are minimalized – In Dala Floda Church, dating back to early 15th century, a dozen foldable chairs that were moved about were the only accessories. This left a lot to the imagination of the audience, and of course to the expressivity of the cast. Being an opera that very few visitors knew and sung in Italian with no surtitles, a language maybe even fewer were fluent in but aided by a fairly detailed synopsis in the elegant programme, the listeners were kept spellbound throughout the performance – an ample demonstration of the power of the music to convey the emotions of the drama and the ability of good singers and actors to bridge over language barriers. Many facets of human behaviour are exposed: oppression, violence, deceit but also love, compassion and forgiveness. The music is not as subtle as late Verdi, but it is full-blooded and vital and in the end very human.

Strong, sometimes rather primitive emotions also requires grand voices and grand voices were at hand in this production. Caruso once said that all you need to get a good performance of Il trovatore is the four greatest voices in the world. For La Gioconda that isn’t enough, you need six great voices. Scotch-Canadian bass Michael MacKinnon’s snarling Alvise was a spine-chilling monster – evil personified. Bengt Krantz’ sonorous, nuanced and oily chief of police Barnaba, could also roar and rage so frighteningly that people in the first rows crouched. Mexican tenor Francisco Almanza as the hero Enzo Grimaldo sported a brilliant lirico-spinto voice that he intelligently never over-loaded – Cielo e mar was stylish and well nuanced. La Cieca, La Gioconda’s blind mother, is a dream role for a contralto and the experienced Ulrika Tenstam – I saw her almost 25 years ago as a magnificent Dalila – impressed greatly with her deep chest-voice. As Laura, Alvise’s wife but in love with Enzo, the young Ingeborg Børch poured out golden mezzo-tones. And La Gioconda herself? It’s a fiendishly complex role that encompasses all kinds of extreme emotions, and Leena Malkki, also producer of the production, had the vocal and expressive strength to create a three-dimensional character, equipped with a brilliant spinto voice that went straight to the heart.

Six grand voices and six great actors – and let us not forget the chorus and the musicians – adorned the music with a shimmer of gold and well deserved the standing ovations. The opera should also be included in the ovations – it should be seen much more frequently. Apart from a production in Södertälje some eight years ago it has not – according to a well-informed friend – been seen in Sweden since 1928.

Göran Forsling

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