United Kingdom The Bamber Season 2022 – Ponchielli, La Gioconda: Soloists, Chorus, The Gascoigne Orchestra / Stephen Barlow (conductor). Grange Park Opera, West Horsley, 2.7.2022. (JPr)
Director ∙ Stephen Medcalf
Set designer ∙ Francis O’Connor
Lighting designer ∙ Tim Mitchell
Choreographer ∙ Sarah Fahie
Enzo Grimaldi ∙ Joseph Calleja
La Gioconda ∙ Amanda Echalaz
La Cieca ∙ Elisabetta Fiorillo
Alvise Badoero ∙ Marco Spotti
Laura ∙ Ruxandra Donose
Barnaba ∙ David Stout
Zuane ∙ Toki Hamano
Isepo ∙ James Schouten
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 why not have principal roles for six voices, instead of Verdi’s five!’ It is a piece of melodramatic hokum that I suspect 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 realistically so has La Gioconda which is only rarely put on. I have only seen it twice, firstly 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! The only name in the cast I can remember now was Franco Tagliavini as Enzo, the prince disguised as a fisherman – it is that sort of opera! – because I missed Pavarotti who was also singing the role there that season. A little research suggests the rest of the cast might have included Galina Savova (La Gioconda), Stefania Toczyska (Laura) and Matteo Manuguerra (Barnaba) with the conductor being Anton Guadagno. The other performance was a semi-staged one in 2017 by Midsummer Opera.
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 1879 version he most favoured. Does it deserve to be so neglected? I procrastinated as the evening went on because as performed by Grange Park Opera there was some fine playing by the The Gascoigne Orchestra – named in honour of GPO’s benefactors the late Bamber Gascoigne and his wife, Christina – and good singing. However, the rather complicated plot unravels over an extremely leisurely 3¼ hours of music and almost collapses near the end with the Act IV trio between Enzo, his innamorata Laura, and the self-sacrificing street singer, La Gioconda, going on for far too long. So many ‘Addios’ are sung before Enzo and Laura make their escape – as they do at this point in the plot – that they seemed reluctant to stop singing and get going. The late Michael Fontes suggests in a learned programme essay how critics at the opening night of La Gioconda at La Scala ‘mostly agreed that the music was excellent, the plot overcomplex, the final act perfect, and the evening interminable.’ I’m more than happy to go along with that.
Good luck with the plot! La Gioconda loves Enzo, however, he still loves Laura, despite one of the leaders of the Inquisition, Alvise, forcing her to marry him. La Gioconda looks after her blind mother, La Cieca, who loves God, though it doesn’t help her much in the end. Barnaba, an Inquisition spy, hates everybody and can barely keep his carnal desire for La Gioconda under control. The manipulative Barnaba persuades Enzo and Laura to elope with the hope of ensnaring La Gioconda for himself. However learning of the planned elopement, she 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 only about half of the convoluted Grand Guignol which also involves phials of poison and a potion that will make Laura appear dead whilst merely asleep!
Stephen Metcalf’s production is unashamedly old-fashioned and with its sombre historically appropriate costumes and largely clutter-free stage it reminded me of the I puritani from Vienna I reviewed recently that was nearly thirty years old. With Francis O’Connor’s designs it could be a maritime setting anywhere. There is only the infamous bocca di leone posting box from the Doge’s Palace that was used for complaints, or – as here – Barnaba’s denunciation of Laura who plans to elope with Enzo, which signifies Venice. This is part of a wall of carved faces we briefly see, otherwise what is most prominent is a flight of steps across the stage that could smoothly move apart the reveal the lower deck of Enzo’s ship or provide the performance space for the entertainment at the Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold) in the third act. At the rear of the stage in metal there is the skeletal suggestion of rigging which unites later in the opera to reveal the ‘dead’ Laura ensnared in Barnaba’s web. Otherwise there is not much else apart from the hint of a Venetian sailing ship that passes at the back and – remembering all the nonsense recently about the London Coliseum potentially catching light during The Valkyrie – there was real flames for Enzo scuttling his ship as Act II ends.
It was all po-faced, melodramatic stuff until the famous Act III ‘Dance of the Hours’ (familiar from Disney’s 1940 Fantasia film and the late Allan Sherman’s comic song ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’). Laura’s husband Alvise had come through some gold curtains and sung his party piece ‘Si! Morir ella de!’ like Tonio singing the Prologue in Pagliacci. Later Sarah Fahie has great fun with the ‘ballet’ and whether you will is a matter of taste as to how appropriate it is to the rest of the opera we see. Let’s just say there is a hint of a pagan festival, some cross-dressing, the temptation of a golden apple, and several gold bean bags chucked around. The protracted end to the opera involves the escape of the revived Laura and Enzo engineered by La Gioconda, Barnaba crawls down the steps (yes we got it, he moved like a spider) to confront her, she pretends to acquiesce before she stabs herself and while La Gioconda is still the victim of the piece Medcalf changes the ending so that she lives long enough to similarly despatch Barnaba as he reveals how he had killed her mother.
The opera boasts a wealth of music for arias, duets and ensemble moments, some of it inspired, some of it not, some of it genuinely original, some of it reminding you of other operas. One of the best things of the evening was the playing of The Gascoigne Orchestra and Philip White’s committed chorus singing with vigour. Although the conductor, Stephen Barlow, knows the Theatre in the Woods well everything was let off the leash too much for such a small venue and there seemed to be no volume control to the playing or the singing. Generally, Barlow kept a firm hand on the proceedings, conducting with the right spirit and relishing Ponchielli’s spine-tingling climaxes, even though forward momentum slackened on occasions. The Act III finale for the six leading singers nearly tore the roof of the opera house that is celebrating only its fifth birthday.
Acting basically involved facing forward, planting the feet, stretching out the arms and emoting, though that maybe more the fault of Ponchielli than the singers or the director. La Gioconda is an opera requiring spinto voices and no one let the side down. David Stout was evil personified as the irredeemably villainous Barnaba and he gave 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 grandstanding. The veteran Elisabetta Fiorillo’s wealth of experience helped elicit sympathy for the pitiable La Cieca. Ruxandra Donose believably showed how Laura had suffered abuse – physically and emotionally – as the trophy wife of an intimidating bully. Vocally Donose was at her very best in a barnstorming diva duel with La Gioconda for the love of Enzo in Act II (‘E un anatema!… L’amo come il fulgor creato’). Marco Spotti’s sepulchral bass expressively revealed how thoroughly nasty Alvise is.
The big name in the cast was Joseph Calleja making his role debut as Enzo, sadly his voice was suffering initially from the ravages of Covid and additionally hay fever, and the top notes of ‘Cielo e mar’ were a little rough and ready but he improved significantly after the long interval to end the opera strongly and sound more his old self. The young Maria Callas memorably sang La Gioconda, so Amanda Echalaz had a hard act to follow. What a great performance hers was, revealing an exciting top to her voice and a plangent lower register. Echalaz didn’t particularly move me with La Gioconda’s dramatic soliloquy ‘Suicidio!’ – probably the composer’s fault again – but there was plenty of impressive intensity here and elsewhere.