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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda - Lyric drama in four acts (1876)
La Gioconda, a street singer, Andrea Gruber (soprano); Enzo Grimaldi, exiled Genoese prince in love with Laura, Marco Berti (ten); Barnaba, sadistic spy who lusts after Gioconda, Alberto Mastromarino (bar); Laura Adorno, wife of Alvise and loved by Enzo, Eildiko Komlosi (mezzo); Alvise, one of the Heads of the State Inquisition, Carlo Colombara (bass); La Cieca, blind mother of Gioconda, Elisabetta Fiorillo (alto)
Orchestra, Chorus and Corps de Ballet of the Arena Di Verona/Danato Renzetti
rec. live, Arena di Verona, Italy, June 2005
Director, set and costumes by Pier Luigi Pizzi
Video Director Tiziano Mancini
Recorded in High Definition. dts digital surround sound, Linear PCM 2.0. Vision 16:9 Colour. NTSC
Menu language: English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German, French
DYNAMIC DVD 33500 [2 DVDs: 162:00]

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Fifteen years or so ago, La Gioconda was voted one of the works that London operagoers would like to see staged in the capital. London didn’t get a staged production but had to make do with concert performances in 2000 and again in September 2004. In over 45 years of regular opera-going I have only managed one staged production, given by Opera North with financial support from the Peter Moores Foundation. It excluded the lovely ballet known as The Dance of the Hours. By contrast, La Gioconda features very regularly at Verona where it is, I believe, the eighth most performed work. It was in the eponymous role at Verona in 1947 that Callas made her operatic debut in Italy and began to be noticed. Although Callas only ever sang the part of Gioconda thirteen times on stage she recorded it twice. The earlier recording is available on Naxos (Naxos Historical 8.110302-04).

La Gioconda involves a convoluted story of passion, intrigue, violence and ultimately tragedy. It is set in 17th century Venice; a republic presided over by a Doge and the notorious ‘Council of Ten’. Gioconda, a street singer with a blind mother, loves Enzo who does not return her love as he is in love with Laura, wife of the powerful nobleman Alvise. Barnaba, a spy of ‘The Council’, lusts after Gioconda. In revenge at her spurning his advances, Barnaba has Gioconda’s blind mother, La Cieca, arrested accusing her of witchcraft. Laura pleads La Cieca’s case with her husband and secures her release. In return, Gioconda helps Laura and Enzo elope and escapes Alvise’s revenge by promising herself to Barnaba. When he comes to claim her she kills herself. The libretto is by Arrigo Boito after Victor Hugo’s drama of 1835. It was first performed at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 8 April 1876.

La Gioconda is an opera of convoluted melodrama, but it is a work packed with melody and motif. The motifs might not have Wagnerian complexity, nor the music the dramatic cohesion of a Verdian masterpiece, nonetheless it has qualities that are far superior to many later so-called verismo works that are more regularly staged.

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s sets here are simple and evocative. A wide reflective cyclorama sits above a raked staircase set centre stage with smaller steps and bridges over ‘canals’ to the side. Various figures are silhouetted at the top of the stairs and subtle lighting effects add to the dark nature of the action (D2 Ch.6). Lighting is used to spectacular effect to represent the burning of Enzo’s ship as he fires it rather than surrender it (D1 Ch.20). Costumes are in period and predominantly dark, even a little dull except for Gioconda in royal blue and Laura in white. Even these splashes of colour are covered with a dark cloak much of the time. The bright reds of the Carneval! Baccanal! (D1 Ch.11) are a contrast as the crowd dance in a furlana, the priest calls the vesper prayers and Gioconda despairs in the arms of her mother. The production of the whole is well handled for the television screen by Tiziano Mancini with sensitivity to the various dramatic situations and persona involved.

Ponchielli’s is a singer’s opera. Its date of composition falls between Verdi’s Aida and Otello and requires similar voices for its principals. Of present spinto sopranos few have bigger voices than Andrea Gruber as La Gioconda. She has heft, colour and dramatic intensity. Since I last saw her a little unsteadiness has joined those attributes when she puts too much pressure on her voice, but she sings and acts with involvement and sincerity. Her rendering of Suicidio (D2 Ch.12) combines the best of her attributes. Unsteadiness, to the point of wobble, afflicts Elisabetta Fiorillo’s La Cieca whilst the incipient beat in Eildiko Komlosi’s voice as Laura must be of concern for a relatively young singer. She is either singing too many heavy roles or in venues a size too large for this stage of her career. In my review of her Amneris in Robert Wilson’s production of Aida from October 2004 I noticed a similar failing (see review). Quality voices of her type in this dramatic repertoire, allied to good acting skills, are few on the ground. I hope she recognises the problem and addresses it before it becomes a wide vibrato and then a wobble. As far as this production is concerned, that beat in the voice apart, her portrayal is effective and appealing.

Thankfully none of the men were prone to any vocal unsteadiness. Marco Berti is a firm favourite at this venue. His tenor is strong and firmly focused but used with very little sensitivity. This was never more apparent than in his singing of Enzo’s showpiece aria Cielo el mar (D1 Ch. 15). He fluffed the opening but then sang as if reciting a telephone directory, his singing monochrome and lacking tonal variety or expression. The audience loved it. Both the Barnaba of Alberto Mastromarino and the Alvise of Carlo Colombara are sung with firm expressive tone. If Mastromarino’s rather portly figure detracted from Barnaba’s menace, his tonal variety and characterisation fully reflected the sadistic character of a role that makes Scarpia seem a relatively gentle seducer. His Pescator, affondo l’escea (D1 Ch.13) as Barnaba tells the fishermen to cast their bait was full of his inner meaning. His cold rage as he bends over Gioconda’s body half shouting ‘Yesterday your mother insulted me! I drowned her’ and realising she cannot hear him, he leaves, is chilling in its histrionic effect (D2 Ch.15). Carlo Colombara’s Alvise is also strongly sung and acted. He is physically imposing and sings with good diction and a wide range of expression in Si, morir ella (D 2 Ch.1). He is a very definite plus among today’s Italian basso cantante. His vocal and acting abilities are very evident and a great strength in this production.

The Danza delle Ore (D2 Ch.7) is performed by prima ballerina Letizia Giuliani and male lead Robert Bolle accompanied by a number of ballerinas in different coloured floating dresses. They all started at the top of the raked central staircase and with Sergio Rossi’s lighting their representation of the music is magical. This musical representation, like the rest of the performance, owes much to the conducting of Danato Renzetti.

There seems to be an increasing number of native Italians with a natural feel for opera as indicated at Pesaro as well as Verona and in the country’s lyric theatres. With many live performances appearing on DVD and CD this is a particularly welcome development. Renzetti’s sympathetic and idiomatic conducting of La Gioconda gives this underrated work its due, as does this staging. The sound is clear and well balanced and Dynamic’s high definition picture is spectacular.

Robert J Farr




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