Interval fireworks on the Harbour, vocal fireworks on the stage start to finish – Opera Australia’s (OA) premiere of Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, in the first of two concert performances at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, seems to celebrate not only the grand tradition of Italian 19th century opera, but the world class artistic strength the House has attracted and nurtured across its 50 years.
Alongside a raft of acclaimed international singers, Australian excellence combines to make Ponchielli’s curiously capricious work and outlandish plot a monumental, adrenaline-pumping encounter.
Duplicity, revenge, lust and murder pervade proceedings as part of the story’s 17th century Venetian setting over four ostentatious acts. While high drama is no stranger, dramatic excess rules.
La Gioconda, the “smiling” singer, is the target of Venetian Inquisition spy Barnaba and his mix of evil and lust. La Gioconda is in love with the exiled Genoese prince, Enzo. But Enzo and Laura, the wife of Alvise, an Inquisition leader, are in love and no end of odd twists and interventions will break their pledge to each other.
Arrigo Boito’s libretto just about suffocates itself along the way, to the extent that by the time Act Three’s instantly recognisable balletic interlude, Dance of the Hours, pleasures the senses, you may be left wondering where exactly in the drama you are.
Ponchielli lavished immense orchestral forces and an endless supply of mood shifts on a score bursting with melting arias, duets and trios etc up to sumptuously written swathes of music for large chorus. But the sum of all parts often struggles to cohere – the structural deficiencies evident in the libretto feel more or less magnified by the music.
Minus the trimmings of sets and costumes, 17th century Venice’s enigma of revelry, decadence and fear nonetheless bristles under the baton of conductor Pinchas Steinberg who expertly juggles and ignites every turn while the OA Orchestra responds with focused and dazzling musicianship.
Forestage, renowned German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is the certain drawcard, but Spanish soprano Saioa Hernández shines as the star of the evening, filling the title role with exceptionally magnetic and potent artistry. With the task of challenging music to sing and a perplexing soul to render, Hernández gives of herself generously, impressing on every level and mastering a role on which the great Maria Callas etched her name decades past.
When La Giaconda’s mentally scarred and zig-zagging mind reach breaking point in Act Four’s knockout aria, ‘Suicidio!’, Hernández’s power, sensitivity and effortless navigation from bottom to top makes the moment so compelling that if Ponchielli was really trying to convey one idea for his audience to take home, it is right here – the question of how could a just God turn a troubled soul trapped in the Christian sin of suicide away from Heaven? Hernández leaves one awestruck.
When Kaufmann made an announcement four weeks back that he would be cancelling two performances in France due to an infection and the need to recuperate, the long journey south seemed a big call. He thankfully made it, rewarding a near full house with his warm, reverberant and charismatic tenor and adding a role debut to his list.
Calmly taking up his position, the first explosive notes demonstrate the magnitude of his instrument. Onwards, the breathtaking nuances, intelligent phrasing and connection to the core of his character sheath his performance with wonder. This is most pronounced as he takes the elasticity of the voice to the finest threads in Act Two’s moving stand-alone aria, ‘Cielo e mar’, in which Enzo longs for Laura’s arrival aboard his boat before their planned (but thwarted) elopement.
Recently singing the role of Amneris with remarkable fervour in OA’s Aida, Polish mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis draws upon more tender and graceful shades as part of her refined but determined and outspoken depiction of the noblewoman, Laura. Rehlis shines no matter the combination of voices around her, including a highlight with Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow in the role of Alvise when he demands she kill herself after learning of her infidelity. Cruelty and sadism nestle comfortably in Kowaljow’s commanding portrayal of Alvise, he making excellent use of his rugged, roaring bass to pour forth chilling wrath in Act Three’s ‘Si, morir ella de!…Ombre di mia prosapia’.
But it is Barnaba the Inquisition spy who is the real villain of the opera, working with stealth to inflict psychological damage for his own advantage and outstandingly sung by French baritone Ludovic Tézier. For almost the entire first two acts, Tézier holds the stage as the soloists breeze in and out to Warwick Doddrell’s rudimentary but effective direction, and having the stamina well beyond Act One’s revealing, monumental monologue, ‘O monumento!’ to make his depraved presence known.
To get to La Gioconda, Barnaba ensnares her blind and frail mother La Cieca, luxuriously sung by local mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, who unearths a wealth of texture and colour from some of Ponchielli’s most gifted writing. Smaller roles are taken up with gusto from the rear choir stalls, embedded among the thrilling voices of the OA Chorus who respond marvellously to the big demands of the varied tessitura and scene-setting moods.
After stabbing herself to death in front of Barnaba, you could only wish that La Gioconda is resting easy in her grave as she so achingly desired. La Cieca’s lifeless body is discovered in the canal but Enzo and Laura do manage to escape eventually. Grand Italian opera powers through a mountain range of peaks and valleys and, enlivened as it is in OA’s concert performances of La Gioconda, it never fails to intoxicate.
La Gioconda in Concert
Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg
Director: Warwick Doddrell
Cast: Saioa Hernández, Agnieszka Rehlis, Vitalij Kowaljow, Jonas Kaufmann, Deborah Humble, Alexander Hargreaves, Ranald McCusker, Nathan Lay, Jonathan McCauley, Gregory Brown
Opera Australia Chorus
Opera Australia Orchestra
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
9 and 12 August 2023