Many opera fans derive a guilty pleasure from watching Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Its story of love, jealousy, death, retribution, self-sacrifice, and plain old malevolence mixes familiar operatic ingredients in an over-the-top concoction that gives six major singers opportunities to shine. These elements make it high in entertainment value, as does its status as an Italian opera conceived in the mold of Meyerbeerian French grand operas (Verdi’s Aida is another).
The libretto, by Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist for his last two operas here writing under the pseudonimo Tobia Gorrio, provides for a large-scale work, spectacular effects, splashes of local color, and, of course, ballet. La Gioconda is even susceptible to Wagner’s famous charge against Meyerbeer—that his operas present “effects without causes”—thanks to the episode in which the tenor lead, Enzo, resolves in a few seconds to blow up his own ship.
La Gioconda is a key link to the next generation of composers after Verdi.
Still, beyond its surface appeal, La Gioconda is a work of artistic importance. In an informative program essay for its current revival at Brussels’ opera house, La Monnaie, the musicologist Roger Parker notes that the opera, first performed at La Scala, Milan, in 1876,is the only Italian opera in the standard repertoire to have its premiere during the lengthy period when Verdi produced no new operas for Italy, an interval stretching from 1859 (Un ballo in maschera) to 1887 (Otello). As such, La Gioconda is a key link to the next generation of composers after Verdi, and it shows forward-looking qualities in its aria forms, accompaniment, motivic development, orchestration, and—especially for its arch-villain Barnaba, a spy for the Venetian Council of Ten—declamatory vocal writing. Given its musical value, fans of the opera have little cause to feel guilty after all.
In the libretto, based on a play by Victor Hugo, Gioconda loves Enzo, a Genoese prince in disguise, who in turn loves, and is loved by, Laura, the wife of Alvise, a director of the Venetian Inquisition. Barnaba lusts after Gioconda, and Gioconda’s mother, La Cieca, spends most of her time in prayer. Olivier Py’s production keeps all this reasonably straight but is excessively gloomy and plagued by an ill-advised concept. The sets, by Pierre-André Weitz, are drab, colorless, rarely representational, and often ugly, and they tend to negate the vibrancy and variety of Ponchielli’s score. Nor do they even begin to suggest Venice, unless you consider having much of the stage floor covered by a shallow puddle of water for the characters to splash around in as a reference to the city’s vulnerability to flooding.
Plausibly enough, Py portrays the treacherous Barnaba—a prototype for the version of Iago that Boito later fashioned for Verdi—as often controlling the action. But Py neutralizes the character, intended as an embodiment of evil, by often presenting him as a diabolical clown with an enormous head (often enacted by a double), as he were a member of some theater troupe. Any hint of evil vanishes every time the head appears.
La Gioconda has the most famous of all operatic ballets, “La Danza delle ore,” and La Monnaie’s dancers perform impressively in a version choreographed by Daniel Izzo that is at times quite traditional. But there is also the simulated sex that is now so commonplace in opera productions, and even nudity. In Act II, set onboard Enzo’s ship, a scantily clad pair of dancers go at it in one cabin while in others the opera continues in a series of duets.
Béatrice Uria-Monzon sings and acts with genuine conviction, as if she were determined to demonstrate how the role should be performed, irrespective of the aberrations around her.
As with other productions I saw on my recent trip to Europe—especially Stefan Herheim’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades in London and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in Paris—directorial perversions left me wondering whether I had really seen the opera in question. Individual arias and duets sometimes registered, but only once did I feel involved in the drama, and that was in the final trio, played straight, when Gioconda self-sacrificially engineers the escape of Laura and Enzo. That feeling, however, ended abruptly, when a rude cut eliminated much of the music.
Best among the singers at the premiere on January 29 (the opera is double cast) was Franco Vassallo, whose suavely nuanced, firmly sung Barnaba could have made a real impact in a production that understands how the opera works. Martina Serafin was to have sung Gioconda but was replaced by Béatrice Uria-Monzon, whose velvety voice doesn’t always attack pitches dead on. But she sings and acts with genuine conviction, as if she were determined to demonstrate how the role should be performed, irrespective of the aberrations around her.
Stefano La Colla’s voice has a robust, metallic sound, but as Enzo he lacks suppleness and his phrasing is wooden. Silvia Tro Santafé’s Laura is much better in these respects, and vocally attractive, too, if a bit on the plain side. As the devout La Cieca, Ning Liang sings with dignity and warmth of tone. Jean Teitgen brings a voice of frightening power to the forbidding Alvise, but in a nice touch, for which Py may be responsible, he shows remorse for instigating his unfaithful wife’s presumed demise. Paolo Carignani conducts.