The Royal Opera – La Gioconda [Urmana]

La Gioconda [Concert performance; sung in Italian]

Barnaba – Alexandru Agache
La Gioconda – Violeta Urmana
La Cieca – Jill Grove
Zuàne – Graeme Broadbent
Isèpo – Elliot Goldie
Enzo Grimaldo – Marcello Giordani
Laura Adorno – Mariana Pentcheva
Alvise Badoero – Eric Halfvarson
A Barnabite – Matthew Rose
Street singers – Nigel Cliffe & Neil Gillespie
A Pilot – Bryan Secombe

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 9 September, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Royal Opera chose to open its 2004-2005 season with two concert performances of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda of which this was the second. This opera has very rarely been staged in the UK, with only Opera North producing it in the last twenty years or so, although the odd concert performance does allow the music to be heard. In some respects the ROH’s presentation made it clear why this is the case, as the piece does not require much more than lavish sets in which to contain the rather melodramatic plot. However, one can see why singers are attracted to the principal parts, the title role in particular, as Ponchielli unfailingly provides lyrical lines, and plenty of scope for drama.

The ROH seems to have had a re-think about to present opera in concert for the stage sides and ceiling were lined with a wooden frame which prevented much of the orchestral sound from escaping into the fly tower, and instead focussed it towards the auditorium. Balance was good and the sound that emanated from the stage was well rounded.

Sadly, the orchestra did not seem to be on tip-top form as there were rather a lot of slightly fluffed entries, particularly in the upper strings – especially early in the evening, and one wondered if the rehearsal period had been quite long enough. The fact that Antonio Pappano seemed to be conducting rather energetically at times only served to strengthen this suspicion. However, things had improved by the time the famous “Dance of the Hours” was reached and the woodwinds, in particular, excelled in this lollipop.

The title role, La Gioconda, is a part that requires a great deal of its singer – she must be a dramatic soprano with a good lyrical top, have the ability to plunge the depths of the range with some forcefulness, and have some reasonably good coloratura technique. That it has attracted singers such as Callas is no surprise as the rewards are big for those with those attributes. The tall and statuesque Lithuanian singer Violeta Urmana certainly has most of them, although her high notes are not perhaps as open and free as they might be, perhaps indicating that her recent move into soprano territory from mezzo-soprano might not be the wisest. But she has everything else the part requires and bags of temperament to go with it. Her “Suicido” aria in the final act was thrillingly delivered, and she made the most of her dramatic opportunities of her long final scene where the character sacrifices herself to save her faithless lover and his new flame.

As her former lover, a prince in disguise as a sailor Enzo Grimaldo, the Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani made a good impression with his clarion and very Italianate voice ringing out clearly. His is a difficult role as in the first act his utterances are rather short and declamatory and then he must launch into the difficult and exposed “Cielo e mar” at the start of the second act. The part is a bit cardboard-cut-out hero, but to judge by his performance he obviously has stage experience in the role. As his new love the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mariana Pentcheva revealed a strong fruity voice of the plummy variety, with a rich vibrato that was kept under tight control. This made an excellent contrast to the more vibrant tone of Urmana, and they duetted very nicely. Laura is not the happiest of characters – she’s in love with Enzo, nearly murdered by Gioconda on several occasions, and nearly poisoned by her jealous husband with a “Juliet’-type potion which makes her appear dead for a while. But she gets her man in the end, and some nice music to sing on the way!

Alexandru Agache sang the villainous state-spy Barnaba, who also lusts after Gioconda and precipitates much of the intrigue. His tone is dryer than it once was, but he rose to his big moments even if his stage and vocal persona are almost too nice for this most machiavellian of operatic baddies. The nasty Alvise was sonorously sung by Eric Halfvarson is his cavernous bass, and cavernous would be the only way to describe Jill Grove’s amazingly voluminous and velvety contralto tones as La Cieca. She really dominated her major appearance in Act One in an impressive ROH debut.

The chorus, placed behind the orchestra and rehearsed by its new director Renato Balsadonna, made lusty contributions to the Carnival scenes of the first act, assisted by the boys of Tiffin School, and made their presence felt in the large finale of the third act.

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