It was written for La Scala, Milan, in 1876 and was Ponchielli’s only successful opera. It’s a blood and thunder piece, full of melodrama and barn-storming melodies, and the only way to perform it is with total commitment and to hell with subtlety. Ponchielli taught both Puccini and Mascagni and one can hear in La Gioconda the forerunner of both Puccini’s Tosca and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
The opera was championed by the soprano Maria Callas at the beginning of her career but it has rather fallen out of favour since then, at least outside Italy. This grandest of grand operas is a hugely demanding piece for any opera company to put on and Grange Park Opera are to be applauded for taking on the challenge.
The big draw for this production was the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Still recovering from a recent bout of Covid, on opening night, the top notes of his big aria, ‘Cielo e Mar’, did not come out the way he would have wished. Bur in the second half sang superbly, his sweetly vibrating voice rising to thrilling passion.
Joseph Calleja. sings Enzo in Ponchielli's sprawling La Gioconda. Photo: Marc Brenner
Calleja plays Enzo, a nobleman who has been banished from Venice for life but returns disguised as a ship’s captain in search of his beloved Laura (the slightly steely-voiced mezzo, Ruxandra Donose). In his absence, she has been forced to marry the elderly Alvise (Marco Spotti), a powerful leader of the Inquisition. Enzo is also loved by a street-singer (Amanda Echalaz), the Gioconda of the title.
Gioconda scrapes a living singing ballads in the street in order to look after her elderly blind mother, La Cieca (Elisabetta Fiorillo). Gioconda has a stalker in Barnaba (David Stout), a spy for the Inquisition, whose advances she forcefully rejects in the opening scene. Barnaba’s desire to take revenge by destroying Gioconda drives the entire plot.
Ponchielli wrote La Cieca as a contralto, the lowest and rarest of female voices, and the veteran Elisabetta Fiorillo’s richly sonorous low notes made her aria of gratitude, 'Voce di donna o d'angelo' one of the highlights of the evening.
Stephen Medcalf’s workmanlike direction concentrates on squeezing a huge opera onto a small stage and telling a complicated story in a straightforward manner. The flight of marble steps in Act One divides in Act Two, revealing large circular openings, like gigantic portholes, suggesting below decks on Enzo’s ship, while some stylised metal rigging slid into place above decks. A single sail which crosses the stage behind the ship effectively suggested the arrival of a smaller boat, bringing Laura to be reunited with Enzo.
Amanda Echalaz sings Gioconda. Photo: Marc Brenner
When Gioconda discovers that Enzo is entertaining another woman, there follows the greatest cat fight in all opera, a glorious duet in which Gioconda and Laura try to outsing and outswear each other in their devotion to Enzo.
In Act Three, at his Ca’ d’Oro or ‘House of Gold’, Alvise has invited the Venetian nobility to celebrate what he believes to be the death of his unfaithful wife. At this point, everything stops for the ballet, the famous Dance of the Hours which you know from Walt Disney’s balletic ostriches and hippos in Fantasia but which you didn’t realise came from an obscure Italian opera.
While the evening is slow to catch fire, Act Four blazes. Gioconda’s big aria ‘Suicidio’ tests every part of the soprano’s voice but Echalaz summons sufficient strength in her chest notes to make the required effect. David Stout as Barnaba gives the vocal and histrionic performance of the evening, one of the few singers in the cast who has the resources to sing every note Ponchielli demanded and who plays the melodrama with real abandon.
But Stout was booed by an infantile section of the audience who think this is amusing. Wasfi Kani, founder and CEO of Grange Park Opera, gives a curtain speech before every performance thanking the season’s benefactors. She might also remind her audience that opera is not pantomime and to boo a singer is the ultimate insult.
La Gioconda is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 16, 20, 23 June; 2, 10, 13 July. West Horsley Place is 23 miles south of London. Southern Rail trains from London Waterloo to Horsley are met by a shuttle bus
|What||La Gioconda, Grange Park Opera review|
|Where||Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, West Horsley,, Leatherhead, KT24 6AW | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
04 Jun 20 – 12 Jul 20, eight performances, with long dinner interval. Start times vary
|Price||£80-£220 (includes a voluntary donation of £40-£80|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|