Hungarian State Opera 2018-19 Review: La Gioconda

Ponchielli’s Masterpiece In Budapest Sinks Faster Than Enzo’s Burning Brigantine

By Jonathan Sutherland

For the average older music lover, “Dance of the Hours” invariably conjures up images of Walt Disney’s plump pirouetting hippos in “Fantasia.” Or possibly Allan Sherman’s  summer-camp horror story “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda.” Any connection to Amilcare’s Ponchielli’s very grand opera “La Gioconda” would more likely be left to the erudition of the panel on the Metropolitan Opera quiz.

“Gioconda” seems to flow in and out of fashion like the tides off the Lido di Jesolo. The Wiener Staatsoper didn’t have a production until 1986 when it was mounted for Ėva Marton and Plácido Domingo, but it hasn’t been seen there since.

Unknown Venice

Water is inevitably the predominating aspect of Venice and stage designer Ėva Szendrényi was more or less on the right track with a computer-generated scrim image of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore Basilica from the Riva degli Schiavoni, but in addition to a dubious relocation of the Campanile, the likeness was more lurid iMax than misty Monet. The principal stage feature was an ankle-deep wading pond through which most of the characters sloshed rather than walking across the adjacent bridges. Perhaps Szendrényi is not aware that aqua alta is seasonal.

Unlike Zack Brown’s opulent designs for the San Francisco Opera in 1979, Alvise’s sumptuous Ca’ d’oro palazzo was a small, white, garishly-lit spartan module which moved up and down like a goods lift.  Laura’s monastic single bed could have been borrowed from Vivaldi’s “Ospedale della Pietà.” Enzo’s brigantine was a few strands of rigging falling from the sky and the Orfano canal was the same lap-pool adjacent to Laura’s now transplanted bedroom.

Bori Tóth’s eclectic pastel costumes, especially in the millinery department, were closer to demure Ladies’ Day at Edwardian Ascot than decadent party town Venice in the 17th century. The banished hero Enzo Grimaldo is supposed to be in disguise, but doesn’t even bother to wear a mask which makes Barnaba’s discovery of his true identity not exactly a model of Hercule Poirot perspicacity. The fateful rosary given by La Cieca to Laura was so enormous it could have been a prodigious Papal pectoral cross or a garish costume crucifix carried by one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

There was no bocca del leone in which to drop incriminating denunciations. Instead four dwarfs, which were one of the more successful production ideas, daubed a graffiti-ish ‘E + L” into a heart shape on a wall.  Barnaba then added the letters CX. For cognoscenti of secret police operations in La Serenissima, this obviously signified the dreaded Council of 10, but for today’s uninitiated, it could have meant endorsing a cloud-based data storage provider.

Fast & Loose

Director András Almási-Tóth played fast and loose with Boito’s explicit libretto. Gioconda shoots Barnaba with a pistol left behind by Enzo rather than satisfying the priapic spy’s “Ebbrezza! Delirio.”  Apart from the text specifying “Sguainando il suo pugnale e afferrando Gioconda,” firearms in 17th century Venice were used almost exclusively for dueling. Despite the libretto stating “Si trafigge nel cuore col pugnale” Almási-Tóth has Gioconda poison herself in the dénouement from the vial which was already discarded during “Ora posso morir.” It was as if the Venetian courtesan had morphed into both Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West” and Leonora in “Il Trovatore.”

Dóra Barta’s choreography of the Dance of the Hours had six youthful statue viventi dancers in the same shallow billabong kicking up a wall of water which might have been an original idea except that Oliver Py did exactly the same thing in his recent ‘Send in the Clowns’ production of “La Gioconda” at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

Cutting Away

Musically things were similarly irksome. There were so many cuts it was as if “La Gioconda” was turned into an operatic tweet. With a total running time of two hours 19 minutes, conductor Gergely Kesselyák was certainly winning the speed regatta. Bruno Bartoletti’s pacing in San Francisco with Scotto and Pavarotti was two hours 38.  Both Antonino Votto’s definitive recording with Maria Callas and Paolo Carignani’s recent Monnaie performance run for 25 minutes more than Kesselyák.

The Carnevale chorus and Furlana ballet went to the shredder, which meant Barnaba’s “Monumento” monologue led straight into the Preghiera without a contrasting period of lightness. The entire first three scenes of Act two were dumped so not only was the “Ha he ha he” chorus of sailors washed overboard, but Barnaba’s rollicking “Pescator” scena was also gutted. Enzo didn’t even get an introductory recitative before unfurling “Cielo e mar.”  The entrance of masked revelers and Alvise’s “Benvenuti messeri!” introduction in Act three also went by the wayside, with the “Danza delle ore” simply coming to life of its own accord.

Happily there was some impressive playing from the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, with the opening cello introduction being particularly luxuriant. String tone was generally warm and the cor anglais and oboe obbligati during La Cieca’s monologue were exemplary. Flutes were fine in the chirpy festa passages but not particularly dulcet otherwise. Brass and percussion were rhythmically accurate but needed a lot more paprika. The brief Preludio to Act four had powerful fortissimo string attack and a poignant clarinet solo.

The Hungarian State Opera chorus sang with enthusiasm but had serious and multiple synchronization problems especially in allegro passages. The opening “Feste e pane” was especially messy. The tricky cross rhythms almost came completely unstuck in the “Della regata, fra canti e fior” ensemble, although admittedly even Patanè and Gardelli had problems there as well. The sublime “Già ti vedo” concertante was much more satisfactory with some roof-raising decibels coming from the committed choristers.

Loud, But Not Always Proud

This was an entirely non-Italian cast with basically old-fashioned solid singing more shouty than subtle.  Unsurprisingly the Italian diction was never more than mezzo-mezzo. Despite the burden of a rosary which was heavy enough to provide Enzo’s non-existent ship with an anchor, Bernadett Wiedemann sang a sturdy La Cieca. There were some really plumy Horne-ish low B-flat chest notes and articulation of the principal “A te questo rosario” motiv was sensitively phrased and reminiscent of Lilowa or Elias.

The evil Barnaba was sung by veteran Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache who huffed and puffed and was generally more noisy than nuanced. Agache has a tendency to slide to the upper register which diminished valid portamenti. There were some solid high F-sharps such as “Giuro all’Averno!” but the voice tended to spread and lose focus. “O monumento!” was arrogant nastiness in extremis but regrettably more barked than bel canto. The fortissimo high F-naturals on “la Signoria più possente” were uncomfortably pushed and sounded far too close to current day Leo Nucci for comfort. Oddly the top G on “Parla” was much better focused and “buona fortuna” convincingly sinistramente. An extended F-sharp fermata on “Ai rai dell’amor!” in the closing scene was stellar.

Krisztián Cser was an impressive Alvise Badoero bringing dramatic gravitas to the head of the State Inquisition. Vocally this was the most consistent performance of the evening. His opening D-flat fermata on “Ribellion!” was sufficiently commanding to instantly silence the seething witch-hunting rabble. “E salva sia” had a Raimondi-esque resonance while the gentle cantible on “Bella cantatrice, quest’oro a te” purred with the honeyed timbre of Cappuccilli.  There was real fire in the Act three denunciation of Laura. “Si! Morir ella de!” had so much malignity it could have been borrowed by Beckmesser.  The accented dotted crotchets were corrected stressed, the low A-natural on “velano” had a fruity resonance and there was a powerful F-natural fermata on the closing “che muor.” “Bella così, Madonna” was dripping with cruel irony; the repeated C-naturals on “Vola su lei la morte” had ominous finality and “Son io che spenta l’ho!” was a veritable larva-flow of venom without losing musicality.

Wobbling Through The Night

Laura is a mezzo role with an important difference in timbre between the sposa infelice and the unhappier spinto street singer. Erika Gál’s vocal color was far too similar to that of Gioconda for such a distinction to be musically discernible. The wobbles and whooping in the bitchy catfight about who loves Enzo the most were almost indistinguishable.  Gál’s fermata on “La salva!” on the other hand had a Simionato solidity but the lilting “Ah! del tuo bacio” duet with Enzo was much too meaty and minus dolcissimo. The third Act altercation with Alvise was more successful with some plummy B-flat chest notes in “Morir! è troppo orribile!”

The role of Enzo Grimaldo has been sung by tenors ranging from the lyrical Carlo Bergonzi to the macho Mario del Monaco. Gergely Boncsér fits into neither category.

Looking more like a downtrodden hirsute deckhand than the Prince of Santafior, his stage presence was particularly bland. The opening “Assassini!” was sung “con molta forza” as marked but things went downhill from there. Boncsér was better in the confrontational scene with Barnaba in Act one but several recitatives were regrettably cut. “O grido di quest’anima,” was suitably ardent with some appealing mezzo voce passages.

Enzo’s show-stopper “Cielo e mar” was adequate without being particularly exciting.  The aria felt labored and there was much better phrasing in the clarinet obbligato. The penultimate B-flat on “bacio” was rapidly released without any fermata and the final sustained B-flat on “vien” attacked more aggressively than the pianissimo marking, but Boncsér did make the correct diminuendo which many more famous Enzo’s, such as Pavarotti, generally ignored. The B-flat on “Cielo” in unison with Laura’s “Enzo” was much more solid. Things continued to improve in Act four with “Si, sul suo santo” and “infame muori” rightly robust with some surprisingly clarion articulation.

Stridency & Overkill

The terrifying title role was sung by popular Hungarian diva Eszter Sümegi. From her opening “madre adorata” it was clear that vocal stridency and dramatic overkill would be more prevalent than nuanced word painting and subtle acting. Considering Ėva Marton (who was one of the foremost Gioconda’s in recent memory) was advising the production, it is surprising that Sümegi’s performance was so lacking in finesse. The soprano seems incapable of singing anything less than forte or fortissimo. The voice is certainly powerful, but diction was consistently defective with a tendency to blur the articulation and inject excessive vibrato.

The forte F-sharp on “Al diavol vane” in Act one was dangerously strident and the A-flats on “T’ho udito! menti!” and “va, va, ti disprezzo” particularly unfocused. The A-natural at “mi fai paura” was actually ugly.  “Mi chiaman la Gioconda” is marked “con eleganza” not “con asprezza”. The soaring 6 beat top B-flat on “come t’amo” was certainly strong but Brünnhilde belty and not particularly loving, especially in comparison to Scotto’s exquisitely pitched piano fermata or Callas’ sfogato coloring. A stridulous top B-flat on “gioia” was fortunately subsumed by the fortissimo orchestral tutti.

Despite the desultory diction, Sümegi’s recitatives were much more satisfactory due to an absence of push with the “O pïetosi” and “La barca s’avvicina” passages being particularly effective.

Gioconda’s demanding “Suicidio” aria is a minefield for mediocre sopranos.  Sümegi tended to shriek rather than sing it and there were lots of old-fashioned histrionics, iffy intonation and an alarming vibrato. Even the fortissimo F-sharp on the first word of the text was flat. The crescendo-diminuendo markings were largely avoided and the lyrical middle section at the F-sharp major key change was far from dolcissimo. The G-natural on “Dissi il ver” was so wildly strident Enzo and Laura could have sailed across it to freedom. A self-indulgent top C fermata on the final “addio” completed the vocal travesty of the fourth scene. The eleganza required in “Vo’ farmi più gaia” needed more lightness but “volesti il mio corpo, demon maledetto?” was suitably Tosca “muori dannato” snarly.

Like so much in this production, directional deviations ran roughshod over Boito’s precise and poetic libretto. The outrageous number of cuts to Ponchielli’s scintillating score further undermined whatever validity the performance may have had.

A screening of “Fantasia” in the cavernous Erkel theatre would have had more aesthetic appeal.


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