To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign message, “It’s the voices, stupid.” The expression seems made for Ponchielli, an also-ran opera composer dwarfed by Verdi’s genius. La Gioconda, his most famous work (1876), can still function if a house has the fat chequebook to rope in six excellent singers.
That’s a tall order these days, which is why the opera is given so rarely. For its first ever appearance at the Paris Opera, management has almost clinched the deal. The first-night audience at least seemed convinced, on its feet and cheering the cast even when the lights went on after the now regulatory two minutes in an effort to shoo everyone home to bed. At times the electricity called to mind big singer evenings when the Paris Opera was firing on all cylinders. Great singing was what intendant Nicolas Joel was supposed to bring off and this is the nearest he has got to it.
Too bad that Violeta Urmana in the title role let the side down by screaming her top notes. She rallied for a sturdy “Suicidio”, her big number, but on this evidence the role is now beyond her. No such problems with Marcelo Álvarez, who occasionally forced as Enzo but still turned in a world-class performance. As Laura, Gioconda’s rival for Enzo’s affections, Luciana d’Intino almost stole the show with sumptuous mezzo tone and foghorn chest notes. Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba struck the right evil pose but would be even more effective with better projection and Orlin Anastassov (Alvise) rolled out Slav charcoal tone to powerful, albeit unidiomatic, effect. As La Cieca, Gioconda’s mother, Maria José Montiel concentrated on her rich mezzo notes and often forgot that she’s supposed to be blind.
All reasonably well and good for the canary fanciers. The appreciable bonus was Daniel Oren’s splendid conducting, which combines colours, tact and sophistication, upgrading Ponchielli’s appeal by several notches.
The rest was a cop-out. There is no shortage of opera directors who could read more into this story of unrequited love, self-sacrifice and villainy without upsetting prickly stars and conservative patrons. Veteran Pier Luigi Pizzi (staging, sets and costumes) prefers to stake all on a grand Venetian set, leaving the cast to its own devices and sending extras and dancers into overdrive to compensate for a static chorus. The famous ballet sequence, for no reason whatsoever, sends the costumes from vaguely late-17th-century Italy to Lido cabaret glitter complete with a topless ballerina. Only in opera.