Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is an example of opera that disappeared from the seasons of opera houses all over the world only to be ressurrected in this new century. In Madrid for example, the opera has rarely been heard since the 1920’s with the notable exception of a run of performances in the 1970’s in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. And this may account for the cold reception by the audience on February 26th. I had the impression most people at the Teatro Real had no idea of what kind of opera this is and what they should expect.
I happened to be in the Metropolitan Opera’s ressurrection of the same opera in 2006 (also with Violeta Urmana). There, an audience that had been treated many and many times on a regular basis until the 1960’s knows very well what they are supposed to find in this very peculiar work.
Violeta Urmana is possibly the greatest Gioconda of her generation. Her voice lacks some Italianate brightness, but she handles the difficult writing superbly – her high pianissimo in Madre! Enzo adorato, ah, come io t´amo! was exquisitely handled and she has no problem with the omnipresent percussive acuti, but the lack of encouragement from the audience might have some share of responsibility in her somewhat detached approach. Only in the last act, the proceedings seemed to launch from routine – and conductor Evelino Pidò cannot be held responsible for the lack of excitement. His conducting was exemplary – the polichrome aspect of Ponchielli’s orchestration was shown with mastery and he handled the dramatic effects in the score most efficiently. The house band responded with animation.
Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato offered a praiseworthy performance – his lyric tenor is adapted to emulate a lirico spinto and the trick is very noticeable, but he has a handsome voice and offers some elegant shading into mezza voce when this is necessary. His Cielo e mar had the right balance between ardour and elegance and if his performance is not more memorable, it is only because one feels how close to his limits he is – although expertly – operating. Similarly, baritone Lado Ataneli was a most reliable Barnaba – he sang with unfailing firm tone and sense of line and resisted the kind of vulgarity most baritones in this kind of role seem to indulge.
In the Met, Urmana sang her Gioconda next to Olga Borodina’s Laura and their scenes were always the highlight of the evening. Elisabetta Fiorillo’s overvibrant mezzo lacks colour and handles awkwardly the passaggio. She does not look or sound attractive and it is difficult to understand why Enzo would prefer her to that nice lady with the pianissimi. Elena Zaremba was similarly overvibrant and it was difficult to guess which notes she was singing so large her vibrato. Her expression of gratitude in act II was far from touching as it should be.
When it comes to Orlin Anastassov, I cannot deny my dissatisfaction with his performance. If you put Paata Burchuladze and Sergei Leiferkus in a blender, the result must be Orlin Anastassov. It is a guttural voice with unclear vowels and this kind of Leiferkus-like metallic attack. He is a young singer and maybe he should work a bit more in his Italian (and Italian singing style in general) before tackling this kind of role.
Pierluigi Pizzi’s production has been featured in the DVD from the Teatro del Liceu. At first the sets look elegant, but in order to accomodate the gondolas, the sceneries are unconvincingly transformed into a palace, a harbour and most of all Gioconda’s house (as portrayed here, the audience could have the impression she lives in the streets). I am not fond of the all-in-three-colours costumes, but the most offensive thing is the evident lack of stage direction. Singers are generally standing in the wrong place for the dramatic action, move around with no apparent intent and in the end you really don’t care for what is going on stage. That was probably the point of coreographing a ballet “representing the hours of the day”, as Alvise explains, that has nothing to do with the hours of the day or any identifiable storyline. That said, the dancers were very fine and got the loudest applauses in the evening.