Grange Park Opera 2022 Review: La Gioconda
Joseph Calleja Overcomes COVID to Star Alongside Potent Amanda EchalazBy Mike Hardy
(Credit: © Marc Brenner)
“La Gioconda,” or “‘The Ballad singer” to give the opera its usual English translation, actually translates to, “The Happy Woman.” Irony overload, indeed, for an opera infused with sin, bitter revenge, betrayal, adultery, suicide, murder, cruelty and the Roman Inquisition.
“La Gioconda” is a bit of a bizarre opera, by any standards. Encapsulating passion, violence and ultimately tragedy it tells the story of Barnaba, (a State spy) who loves Gioconda (a street singer), who loves Enzo (prince and banished nobleman), who loves Laura, (a Genoese lady) who no longer loves Alvise (one of the leaders of the Inquisition). Got that? Good.
Throw in a 10-minute-long ballet in Act three, said to depict the eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness, almost as colorful and comical as Walt Disney’s famous adaptation of it for his film “Fantasia,” and this makes for one weird and wacky opera.
And yet, what makes this opera so enduring and popular is the sublime music which was rendered here by the Gascoigne orchestra which performed majestically under the baton of Stephen Barlow and a score, beautifully sung here by an excellent cast.
The orchestra actually seemed to be out of sorts with the production in terms of timing in between acts, forcing quizzical looks from the audience at, seemingly, inordinate delays. Once in synch, however, Barlow didn’t deviate much from Ponchielli’s score, although he managed to elicit sublimely heart-rending strains from the string section, particularly in the Preludio and in the final section of Act one, both during and proceeding the duet between Gioconda and Cieca.
Designer Francis O’Connor elected to go for minimalism in his staging, but the centerpiece was a giant staircase of some pretty steep steps which struck me as cumbersome, and Enzo clearly, partially stumbled on them when exiting the stage during Act one. This staircase parted to reveal, in turn, ship portholes, and basement prison cells; and at one point was still moving whilst the chorus and dancers were performing on them; presumably the Health & Safety Executive excluded from the drawing up plans.
Two pieces of inspired creativity, however, were noteworthy; one, when Enzo set alight his ship in Act two, producing some restrained but highly effective pyrotechnics, and two; the emergence of a large spider’s web backdrop to symbolize the web spun by the destructive protagonist Barnaba, and which served to suitably encapsulate his demise at the end.
Tim Mitchell’s lighting, too, was minimalist and so much of the gloom and depression of the libretto could have been improved with some thoughtful illumination. That said, his lighting of the aforementioned web was very effective.
Things got off to a rocky start with the announcement that tenor Joseph Calleja had recently been suffering from COVID and wasn’t in the best of health. “But he IS going to sing,” the lady announcer quickly sought to assure the audience.
Alas, when Calleja finally makes his entrance during Act one, as prince and captain Enzo Grimaldo, the voice seemed, ostensibly at least, intact.
As for star tenor, despite his aforementioned illness, the mellifluous beauty that is Calleja’s hallmark was still in much evidence in the middle register, and he still managed to slip into those amazing pianissimos in a way like so few artists can, doing so with apparent ease in his duet with Donose.
But he was clearly, periodically, in some physical discomfort and a slight rasp could be perceived when in the upper register. His big tenor moment “Cielo e mar” in the second act, was particularly cautious. He avoided the traditional B flat, “Ah! Vien!” climax completely, preferring to harmonize in a lower register. Curiously, this was how Ponchielli originally wrote the aria, but a Calleja on all cylinders would have belted out that top note and finished with an exquisite diminuendo.
Ultimately, given the circumstances, Calleja could be forgiven were he to have cancelled the performance. That he didn’t, and still managed to produce a stunning showing here is testimony to his professionalism and dedication.
South African soprano Amanda Echalaz sang the role of Gioconda with consummate beauty and sensitivity, albeit it with a touch of raucousness. A large voice that positively resonated and bounded off the rafters, more than once I longed for her to nuance her approach with more inflection. Her Act 4 “Suicido!” was delivered with much of the same ardent energy that she displayed throughout the evening but was lacking tenderness in such passages as “Ultima voce Del mio destino, Ultima croce Del mio cammino” and “Domando al cielo, Di dormir quiet.” This gentle quality was also noticeably missing in her interactions with Enzo to truly make us feel her love and passion for him. Despite this, her boundless energy and gusto ensured she dominated pretty much every scene she was in, effecting a commanding performance and despite Calleja having “star” billing, the final curtain call bow was all hers.
Well-established and versatile baritone David Stout displayed phenomenal stage presence as the thoroughly unpleasant Barnaba, infusing his role with a wonderful, yet subtle, comical flavor. He is a real tour de force in this casting, creeping around the stage with all the malevolence of any pantomime villain. It was difficult at times to concentrate on his interactions with Gioconda, the target of his uncontrollable lust, or indeed with other cast members, due to his comedic prowling, somewhat redolent of Peter Lorre. If one isn’t wholly conversant with the opera, I can imagine it being difficult to not expect him to pop up at any given point in the proceedings. Vocally, however, he was quite magnificent. His sonorous baritone lit up the stage from the moment he entered in Act one, establishing his evil credentials, along with the desires for the woman of his dreams. His “Ah! pescator, affonda l’esca,” in Act two was resplendent, full-toned and displaying beautiful phrasing.
Elisabetta Fiorillo, the Italian mezzo playing La Cieca, Gioconda’s Mother, cut a very fragile and diminutive figure as a blind woman on stage, but her performance here was anything but diminutive or fragile, possessing a voice of impassioned strength that belied her small frame. Her interactions with Gioconda in the first act were especially touching and evocative, although her contralto was noticeably overwhelmed by Echalaz’s resonance. Her “Voce di donna o D’Angelo,” however, was particularly endearing and although the voice betrayed a slight wobble, it served only to enhance the fragility and vulnerability of her character.
Romanian Mezzo-Soprano Ruxandra Donose presents an almost angelic Laura, whose infidelity against her charmless husband, inquisition leader Alvise Badoero does little, if anything, to diminish her heroic intervention in the first Act, the rescuing of Cieca from a baying mob intent on her demise. She was unfortunately overshadowed here in her engagements with her, alternately, foe and ally Gioconda, on vocal volume alone. Her duet with Enzo in Act two, however, particularly the “Laggiù fra le nebbe remote,” was exquisite and one of the highlights of the whole opera, depicting perhaps the only credible element to Ponchielli’s tale. Equally mesmerising was her subsequent aria, “Stella del marinar,” her prayer for protection against those that might thwart her plan to elope.
Speaking of those that might seek to thwart plans, the role of Alvise Badoero is always going to be a tough act when your Barnaba is as gifted and formidable as David Stout’s is here. Badoero, one of the leaders of the inquisition, is every bit as rancorous as his colleague but without the charisma. Italian Bass Marco Spotti appeared to experience some intonation issues on this opening night, especially in his Act three solo, “Si, morir ella de.” He seemed to acquire better vocal control in his subsequent confrontation with wife Laura, his vengeful proclamations positively dripping with malice and cruel intent as he firstly reveals his knowledge about her passions and dalliances with Enzo and then his insistence that she consume the poison he has prepared for her as punishment for her sins. On this occasion Spotti’s true star never quite managed to shine and his technical flaws served to enhance the superiority of Stout’s baritone.
The Grange Opera chorus delivered an exuberant and splendiferous display, vocally as well as visually, particularly during the second Act.
Originally set to be hosts of this performance in 2020, before Coronavirus reared its ugly head, The Grange Opera is a five-tier opera house affectionately named “The Theatre in the Woods,” in a stunningly beautiful Surrey Hills location. It has the reputation of being one of the foremost major summer opera festivals in Europe.
Set in 350 acres of magnificent grounds, the Opera House is, fittingly here, modelled on the La Scala in Milan where “La Gioconda” was first ever performed.