Limelight, 10 August 2023
by Deborah Jones
Ponchielli: La Gioconda, Sydney, 9. und 12. August 2023
La Gioconda (Opera Australia)
The stars were out for Opera Australia’s concert version of Ponchielli’s one and only hit opera with Jonas Kaufmann's artistry front and centre.

Even by opera’s standards the plot of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda(1876) requires a great deal of indulgence on the part of the viewer. The libretto, written by Arrigo Boito under his pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio (an anagram) and loosely based on a Victor Hugo play, revels in extreme emotions and actions without troubling itself too much with logic.

It’s impossible to forget Wagner’s comment about Meyerbeer, whose grand French operas – particularly those with libretti by Scribe – provided a template for La Gioconda. “Effects without causes” was Wagner’s putdown and the witticism could be applied to La Gioconda.

It’s true the principal figures have impulses rather than well-defined characters, that the plot hurtles from one implausibility to the next and that spectacle seems to be there for the sake of sensation rather than necessity. La Gioconda nevertheless hangs on to its place in the repertoire.

Opera Australia’s concert performance, while obviously short on spectacle, shows why.

The lavish score is studded with impassioned numbers for soloists, duos and trios. The ensembles are exciting, the dance music wonderful and a large chorus weaves in and out of the action, adding sumptuous texture and summoning the vivid atmospherics of 17th century Venice under the Inquisition. The OA chorus did its job splendidly, including the provision of brief but important solos sung from the chorus stalls.

The Opera Australia Orchestra, released from its usual place in the pit of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, gave a mighty performance of the music under the baton of Pinchas Steinberg. Steinberg’s control of dynamics and mood-setting ensured that the dance music danced, blood-and-thunder moments roared and lyrical passages sang. Steinberg’s impeccable direction allowed the tiniest details to shine through the texture like fireflies at night while remaining inextricably part of the fabric of the piece.

La Gioconda in concert gives the opera’s incongruities nowhere to hide but performances were gripping enough to paper over the cracks. Making her house debut, Spanish soprano Saioa Hernández was transfixing as the singer Gioconda. She is already celebrated in the role and has it under her skin. It lived in every phrase. The incongruities were part of her torment.

Hernández’s immersion in the drama brings to mind what Tullio Serafin told Maria Callas when she made her Italian debut: that there had to be “an expression to everything you do, a justification”. The role Callas was taking on was Gioconda.

Hernández has her own highly individual timbre, one that seems made for tragedy. In Gioconda’s Act IV aria Suicidio!, Hernández plumbed the depths of despair with thrillingly powerful chest voice. Earlier singing of love and sacrifice she sounded ecstatic – erotic even – in her utterly secure, gleaming high register.

At the end of the first act Gioconda, who is fruitlessly in love with the exiled prince Enzo, says her destiny “is either love or death”. It’s pretty clear which will win out.

La Gioconda is held together by a very real sense of doom. One can imagine a staged production that concentrates on the pervasive stench of death. Even the radiant Dance of the Hours in the third act is a reminder that time ticks away.

The opera starts and finishes with the spy Barnaba, sung with implacable, almost over-powering force by French baritone Ludovic Tézier. In one of his earliest utterances Barnaba says that just below the ground where people dance and sing are the ghastly prisons that hold the “flies” he catches in the service of the state. Tézier was towering in the Act I aria O monumento!,which looks forward to Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello (Boito wrote its libretto 11 years after La Gioconda). Barnaba is essentially pure evil but within that unrelenting darkness Tézier found moments of reflection and even beauty.

Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Enzo saw the tenor a little under par at the first performance. He was slightly scratchy at the beginning of the lovely aria Cielo e mar in Act II but it was fascinating to hear him explore the role’s possibilities. Kaufmann’s soft singing in the upper register sometimes edged into head voice and mezza voce phrases underlined Enzo’s romantic longings. If not all the trademark burnish was present, Kaufmann’s artistry was front and centre.

In La Gioconda it’s the mezzo who gets the man. Fresh from performances as Amneris in Aida for OA, Agnieszka Rehlis was a silken, elegant Laura with plenty of passion under the fine exterior. Her Act II face-off with Hernández, L’amo come il fulgor del creato, in which each woman argues the strength of her love for Enzo, was a highlight. Like Hernández, Rehlis has performed her role before and even though neither moved from the music stand their interaction caught fire.

Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow and Australian mezzo Deborah Humble embodied the smaller but no less important roles of Laura’s powerful husband Alvise and Gioconda’s saintly blind mother La Cieca.

At interval on Wednesday fireworks were set off on Sydney Harbour as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th anniversary celebrations. They were fun, but no match really for the fireworks inside the Concert Hall.

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