Sat 25 May 2013
Amilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda
Opéra National de Paris, 2013 | Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura | Viva l’Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013
Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera. Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn’t been performed more often. Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer’s operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience. Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.
The other reason La Gioconda perhaps hasn’t been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life. It’s no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it’s rarely been heard since then. I wouldn’t say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world’s greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera’s production. What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn’t just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right. Here, the Paris production was less convincing.
The set design for the opera’s Venetian locations at least looked terrific. Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work. The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that’s recreated here well in Pizzi’s neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them. A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene. It’s all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon. The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work’s most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement. The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.
The acting direction however is simply dreadful. Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience. Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit. He’s a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions. It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance. La Gioconda’s ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.
The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn’t much in evidence in Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov’s Alvise. Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making La Gioconda love him. It’s not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito’s libretto isn’t as refined here as it is for Verdi’s later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo’s source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn’t strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing. Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.
These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers. The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles. Violeta Urmana’s top notes aren’t particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role. Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.
Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival! Gioconda: You blaspheme! Laura: You lie! I love him as the light of Creation. Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh. Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight. And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!.
This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing “I love him as the lion loves blood” and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well. Urmana’s scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.
La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli’s work has the ability to endure. One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn’t particularly in context with the rest of the work. With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.
The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes. La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it’s in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini’s Tosca. If the singing couldn’t always reach those heights, the full power of the work’s qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.