Sydney Morning Herald, August 13, 2023
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
Ponchielli: La Gioconda, Sydney, 9. und 12. August 2023
La Gioconda in Concert
There was resplendence and relief as Jonas Kaufmann rose to the top B flat of Cielo e mar in Act II of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, concluding what had been a masterclass in coloured subtlety and exquisitely tapered phrasing.

The resplendence arose from the rare radiance and fine-grained beauty of the sound that has made him among the world’s most sought-after tenors. The relief was that his peerless musical artistry had navigated the thousand fleshy infirmities to which the human voice is heir to at different times and places with such supreme mastery.

Kaufmann paced the performance with insightful, dramatic intelligence, always vividly there when the theatrical moment required heroic intervention. As exiled hero Enzo, he was the best-known name among the six superb singers who brought this once-celebrated, now-faded jewel of the Italian operatic stage to such vivid life in the Concert Hall.

Saioa Hernandez delivered soaring vocal gestures of thrilling power and crimson passion as the “smiling lady” of the title – like Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night, she is smiling at grief. Hernandez commanded the stage, cutting through huge choral, orchestral and vocal forces with thrilling power in her upper register, and creating dark, fateful definition to low notes. For her climactic scene in Act IV, she summoned yet more reserves of strength and generous vocal excess.

As her counterpart and nemesis, French baritone Ludovic Tezier brought menacing edge and a voice of shaded roughness to Barnaba, the villainous, ungodly spy of the Inquisition. Tezier sustained Act I with unwavering stamina and returned to bring later dramatic moments to a brutal culmination.

Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble made a welcome return to these shores, singing La Cieca, Gioconda’s beloved mother, with richly seasoned, pleading depth. The preferred rival for Enzo’s affections, Laura, was sung with a shining, silvered tone by mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis. Her cruel husband, Alvise, the sinister leader of the Inquisition, was taken by bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who led Act III with a roundly moulded sound, veiled in icy smoothness.

Act III also provides La Gioconda’s other well-known excerpt, the much-bowdlerised ballet Danza delle ore (Dance of the Hours), which the Opera Australia Orchestra, under conductor Pinchas Steinberg, played with compact, disciplined string sound, highlighted with bright flashes from woodwind. Singing from behind, the Opera Australia Chorus realised piety and parties with equal gusto and cohesive balance.

In addition to the individual strengths of the principal singers, it was the layered intensity of the ensembles, set out with such glistening contrapuntal clarity in the Concert Hall’s acoustics, which drew the listener into this dated drama with such gripping effect. This is a rare chance to hear Italian opera as it once was, and indeed ought to be.

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