La Gioconda - Opera Holland Park, 22 July 2008
For its annual slice of rare Italian cheese, Opera Holland Park selected Ponchielli’s potboiler La Gioconda. Death, deceit, vengeance and passion all wrapped up in one tortuous plot, which I won't even attempt to explain, as I'm not sure I grasped it totally myself.
Musically it has its moments, the best known being the beautiful tenor aria Cielo e mar and the ballet interlude Dance of the Hours (aka Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah Hello Faddah). Dramatically, it stretches credulity, and even Martin Lloyd-Evans's grave production failed to prevent titters at the heroine's suicide and other grimly serious moments.
The stark lines of the breeze block set counterpointed the throbbing melodrama of the opera, even if, split by deep 'canals', it did look more like a pair of disused platforms at Waterloo than 19th century Venice.
Carnival masks and traditional costuming provided a more Venetian flavour.
I was less convinced by intermittent Regietheater touches sprinkled like truffle shavings over pizza. The stage full of abandoned shoes the chorus stepped into at the start. The flapping gloves that poked out of a slot later. What did it all mean?
Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers's corseted and cantilevered bewbs provided the main spectacle. Like two baldy men fighting their way out of a box, they were impossible to ignore. As the bunny-boiler heroine, La Gioconda, Jeffers had an uneven night vocally. There were moments of exquisite beauty and great control, perfectly shaded diminuendos and sparkling line, but also more squally top and dodgy pitching than could be overlooked.
David Soar was the pick of the vocalists and the audience favourite, with a firmly delivered and commanding Alvise, really the only performer who delivered consistently at top level throughout the evening.
You couldn't claim Nuala Willis sang beautifully, but in the character part of La Gioconda's blind elderly mother, her geriatric wobble and rasped witchy curses were astonishingly truthful - it's hard to imagine how this part could be more effectively sung.
There were things to like about all of the cast though. Olafur Sigurdarson as Barnaba improved greatly as the night went on, displaying an energy and commitment that not all the cast could muster. Vadim Zaplechny's Enzo was patchy, the arias delivered indifferently, but he came alive at the big moments and there was a lot of attractive singing there. Yvonne Howard's Laura was a little anonymous, but reliably delivered.
The orchestra threatened to unravel totally during a few fast passages early on, but settled into a sturdy performance. Their highlight was the Dance of the Hours ballet, where Ponchielli switches gear for a few minutes of truly imaginative orchestration and memorable melody. This was the only place where the production really dragged, the dancers failing to hold the attention in quite such a gripping fashion as the singers, despite the odd flaw, managed to.