United Kingdom Ponchielli, La Gioconda (semi-staged performance): Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Midsummer Opera / David Roblou (conductor). St John’s Church, Waterloo, London, 9.4.2017. (JPr)
La Gioconda – Zoë South
Laura – Anna Loveday
La Cieca – Siân Woodling
Enzo Grimaldo – John Upperton
Barnaba – Trevor Alexander
Alvise – Stephen Holloway
Zuàne – Thorvald Blough
Isèpo – Christopher Hollis
Monk, pilot, singer – Tony Brewer
Voices off-stage – Christopher Hollis & Tony Brewer
Lynne McAdam – Director
It is as though someone said to Amilcare Ponchielli – who was striving for success as an opera composer – ‘Why not write something like Il trovatore, but just to make it different since that has principal roles for five voice types, you can use all six!’ It is a piece of melodramatic hokum that I am sure is considered by some as the grandest of grand operas. It is in the style of Meyerbeer and most of his operas have disappeared from the repertory and so – mostly – has La Gioconda which only reappears on rare occasions. I have only seen it once, in Verona during a hot 1980 Italian summer which heated the arena’s ancient limestone steps such that the plums I had with me in a plastic container began fermenting as the evening went on. I cannot remember all the cast and just recall it was Franco Tagliavini as Enzo, the prince disguised as a fisherman – it is that sort of opera! – because Pavarotti also appeared there that season in the role.
The four-act La Gioconda was first performed in 1876 and was supposedly the most successful new Italian opera between Verdi’s Aida (1871) and Otello (1887). Ponchielli revised it many times up until the current 1880 version. Does it deserve to be neglected? I procrastinated as the evening went on because – as performed by Midsummer Opera in their semi-staging – there was some fine playing by the orchestra and good singing. However, the rather complicated plot unravels at a snail’s pace over about 3¼ hours of music and almost collapses near the end with the Act IV trio between Enzo, his inamorata Laura, and the self-sacrificing street singer, Gioconda, going on for far too long. They sing so many ‘Addios’ that I wanted to storm the platform to ‘encourage’ Enzo and Laura to make their escape – as they do at this point in the plot – because I was losing the will to live!
Well what is the plot? Good luck with that! We are in seventeenth-century Venice for the staple operatic fare of disguise, mismatched lovers, hate, lust, intrigue, betrayal and murder. Gioconda loves Enzo, however, he is the former fiancé of Laura and still loves her, despite one of the leaders of the Inquisition, Alvise, forcing Laura to marry him. Gioconda’s blind mother, La Cieca loves God, though it doesn’t help her much in the end. Barnaba, an Inquisition spy, hates everybody and can barely keep his desire for Gioconda under control. The manipulative Barnaba persuades Enzo and Laura to elope, with the hope of ensnaring Gioconda for himself. Gioconda, learning of the planned elopement, sets out to murder her rival but is shocked to discover her mother’s rosary around Laura’s neck. La Cieca gave it to her for saving her from a mob denouncing her as a witch. That is about only half only of all the convoluted Grand Guignol which also includes phials of poison and a potion that will make Laura sleep yet appear dead!
Since Midsummer Opera relies on the artists and orchestra doing what they do for love and is run on a shoestring, surtitles are apparently not possible. Sadly, these are absolutely necessary in 2017 for an opera sung in the original language. Within 10 minutes of the start of the action those who had programmes were looking at the synopsis; and it was like that every time I looked around me for the rest of the evening. To their great credit – and for roles they are unlikely ever to sing again – all the soloists had learnt their parts and it was only some members of the chorus who used scores. With the audience so focussed on their programmes this effort went for nothing, as did most of what took place on a low platform in front of the orchestra. Costumes were whatever those involved could find to bring some ‘colour’ to the carnival in Act I and for the happenings on Enzo’s ship in Act II. As things became more formal for the entertainment at Alvise’s palace in Act III everyone was suitably attired in evening dress. Lynne McAdam effectively used the space provided by St. John’s Church, Waterloo (not to be confused with the one in Smith Square) and had the singers use the aisles in the middle or at the sides of the audience. Acting basically involved planting the feet, stretching out the arms and emoting, but that is more Ponchielli’s fault than the singers’ or the director’s.
The opera boasts a wealth of music for arias, duets and ensemble moments, some of it inspired, some of it not. There is also the dance music, including the famous ‘Dance of the Hours’, familiar from Disney’s 1940 Fantasia film and the late Allan Sherman’s comic song ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’. Ponchielli at his best needs more room than the church and its sonorous acoustics allows. One of the best things of the evening was the playing of Midsummer Opera’s non-professional orchestra which numbered over 60. Although the conductor, David Roblou, knows the venue well he still let his musicians occasionally off the leash too much. There seemed to be no volume control especially during Act I, which at one point had someone sitting, like me, at the front of the audience putting their fingers in their ears. Generally, Roblou kept an admirably firm hand on the proceedings, conducting with the right spirit and relishing Ponchielli’s spine-tingling climaxes. The Act III finale – that nearly tore the roof of the nineteenth-century building – was a particular highlight.
As if matching the age profile of the audience, chorus and orchestra, the cast comprised a number of grizzled veterans of Midsummer Opera performances over its past three decades, plus a few younger singers. In an opera requiring spinto voices not all the casting was ideal, but no one let the side down. Trevor Alexander was the irredeemably villainous Barnaba and it was overall a very commanding performance. His credo ‘O monumento!’ at the Doge’s Palace in Act I was Iago-like and his fisherman’s song at the start of Act II allowed him to do some old-fashioned showing-off. The rich-toned Siân Woodling had her moments as La Cieca. Stephen Holloway was bellowing and baleful as the cuckolded Alvise Badoero. Perhaps the best actress was Anna Loveday who believably played Laura as the physically and emotional abused trophy wife of an intimidating bully. Vocally Loveday was at her best when she and Gioconda have their barnstorming diva duel for the love of Enzo in Act II (‘E un anatema!… L’amo come il fulgor creato’). Enzo’s ‘Cielo e mar’ was more than capably sung by John Upperton and was everything an Italian tenor aria ought to be. Upperton is Midsummer Opera’s reliable ‘go-to’ tenor as well as their chorus master and he did an admirable job with them.
The young Callas memorably sang Gioconda, so this was a hard act to follow for Zoë South one of the most reliable sopranos on the busy fringe opera scene. Her exciting top never belies the fact that she began as a mezzo. Despite her plangent lower register, South didn’t particularly move me with Gioconda’s dramatic soliloquy ‘Suicidio!’. There was plenty of intensity here – and elsewhere in her performance – and it was more a case of needing the dramatic context of a full staging or possibly the length of the opera which was affecting me.
Mentioning the latter, I hope Midsummer Opera will forgive a couple of moans. Firstly, the opera surely could have had a few judicious cuts – especially in the dance music when there is no dancing – to bring the evening to a close a little earlier? Even Midsummer Opera’s most loyal followers – who packed the church from late afternoon onwards – were seen glancing anxiously at their watches wondering when it was all going to end. Secondly, I mentioned about projecting a translation and okay, if money is tight, then there was a simple solution to this. I’m certain Midsummer Opera’s artistic director and conductor, David Roblou, is a personable fellow and he could have spent 5 minutes at the start introducing the characters and their ‘motivations’; and a further five minutes at the beginning of the first act and after the subsequent intervals to outline what was about to happen and what to look out for. An example of this would be the importance of La Cieca’s rosary! Not everyone had a programme – or read it – and this sort of approach could have enhanced the enjoyment more of all concerned.