Opera Holland Park – La Gioconda

La Gioconda – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Tobia Gorrio (Arrigo Boito) after Victor Hugo’s play Angélo, tyran de Padoue [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

La Gioconda – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Laura Adorno – Yvonne Howard
Alvise Badoero – David Soar
La Cieca – Nuala Willis
Enzo Grimaldi – Vadim Zaplechny
Barnaba – Olafur Sigurdson
Zuàne – Charles Johnston
Isèpo – Aled Hall
Un Barnabotto – Benedict Nelson
A singer – Nicholas Morris
A Pilot – Alexander Byron Hargreaves
Una voce – Andrew Glover
Un’altra voce – Benedict Nelson

Opera Holland Park Chorus

City of London Sinfonia
Peter Robinson

Martin Lloyd Evans – Director
Jamie Vartan – Designer
Simon Corder – Lighting
Regina Wielingen – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 July, 2008
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

David Soar and Vadim Zaplechny with the Opera Holland Park Chorus. Photograph: Fritz CurzonOn a warm, slightly stuffy night, Opera Holland Park unveiled its new production of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” – London’s first staging of the work first premiered at La Scala in April 1876. Occasionally heard in concert performance the work is a relative rarity worldwide requiring as it does a stellar cast and, in reputation at least, a pretty lavish (expensive) production with effects to do the big set-pieces justice. With modest resources OHP proved that there is much to admire in the work and that an inventive production can bring it to life.

OHP’s production perhaps does not catch the opulence of 17th-century Venice, but the simple set with its abstract representations of canals, gondola, lagoons and decks of ships is most effective. There was also telling use of Venetian carnival masks and black cloaks in the costuming – subtly emphasising that this is a place where everyone is not quite as they seem and where everybody is watching everyone else in an atmosphere tense with suspicion.

The opera’s plot is for the most part pure melodrama, and not always the clearest – although Martin Lloyd Evans manages to make it very simple to follow and to clarify the twists and turns that can seem baffling when the work is encountered in concert performance – I’d never really worked out why Enzo burns his ship at the end of Act Two.

There were some unfortunate moments when the rather literal surtitle-translations produced giggles from the audience. Laura’s rising from the dead was one such moment – and there was a line from the sailors on Enzo’s ship about their being the “squirrels of the sea” (!) that had me chuckling.

Yvonne_Howard as Laura and Vadim Zaplechny as Enzo. Photograph: Fritz CurzonIt is true that there are moments when the composer’s inspiration is not always so memorable – but there are some rewarding arias and duets for the main protagonists with some long melodies that are hugely enjoyable and which carry the listener along. There are moments that look back to early and middle Verdi and also forward to Puccini and it is these qualities that keep the work alive on the margins of the repertory.

The City of London Sinfonia gave a warm and flowing account of the score under Peter Robinson who gave the instrumental soloists their moments to shine.

The cast assembled is a good one. In some ways the Barnaba of Olafur Sigurdson and the Alvise of David Soar fared best. Sigurdson in particular has just the right solid, rounded and charismatic baritone the part of the manipulative Barnaba requires (odd that the character is supposed to be a successful spy when every one of his plans in this opera fails!). He was good as the disguised fisherman, and made his early outburst “O monumento!…”, a forceful moment presaging Iago’s ‘Credo’ in Verdi’s “Otello” interestingly. David Soar made the most of his moment in the spotlight at the start of Act Three and brought the violent nastiness of the character right over the footlights with his incisive singing and acting.

As the romantic lead Enzo, who has one of the famous arias of the score, ‘Cielo e mar’, Vadim Zaplechny certainly did not shirk the demands. The aria perhaps was not quite a total success, but he was pretty heroic when needed. His tone is a little too covered for this very Italian line – which really needs the open throat of a Pavarotti-type voice. He also missed the reckless and debonair quality that the part really requires. But it was an enjoyable and creditable performance nonetheless.

Olafur Sigurdarson as Barnaba and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as La Gioconda. Photograph: Fritz CurzonGweneth-Ann Jeffers’s assumption of the title role was sung most beautifully – perhaps too much so. She never makes an ugly sound – even when resorting to the low chest-voice register for the character’s more declamatory outbursts. She also rides the climaxes thrillingly. She managed to bring out an unexpected vulnerability in the character, which was unusual, and yet made the outbursts of jealousy convincing too. Just occasionally one wanted a little more dominance – this is a role that needs the sort of on-the-edge scenery-chomping acting that keeps the audience focussed on the singer the entire time, and that she did not always deliver. She goes from strength to strength as a performer.

Yvonne Howard played the rather passive yet sympathetic Laura Adorno, managing to capture the character’s insecurities and inner strength. Her taking the potion and simulating death was played out on one side of the stage as a counterpart to the ‘Dance of the Hours’ in a good piece of direction. Poor lady though – she had to lie absolutely motionless for the next 20 minutes at least. She sang well, as always, and brought some very authentic use of low chest-voice to bolster her more dramatic moments. Again, one realised that this role is an interesting prototype of later mezzo roles such as Verdi’s Amneris.

As La Gioconda’s mother, La Cieca, Nuala Willis turned in another of her old-woman cameos that she does so well and individually. Goodness, she knows how to dominate a stage and how to exert a presence even when not singing. Her singing was strong if not always terribly lovely.

The chorus was on excellent form and the big ensemble moments benefited from these singers spirited presence and full-throttled vocalism enormously.

Anyone with an interest in opera from this period and in seeing a rare staging “La Gioconda” should certainly try and catch Opera Holland Park’s production. I note that in 2010 OHP plans to stage Zandonai’s “Francesca di Rimini”. I hope such exploration of the repertoire continues.

  • La Gioconda is at Holland Park Theatre until 9 August at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box Office: 0845 230 9769
  • Tickets £10.00 to £52.00 with some concessions
  • Opera Holland Park

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