09/23/2000 - and 26 September 2000
Amilcar Ponchielli: La Gioconda
Jane Eaglen (La Gioconda), Anne-Marie Owens (Laura Adorno), Alastair Miles (Alvise Badoero), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (La Cieca), Dennis O’Neill (Enzo Grimaldi), Peter Sidhom (Barnaba)
ENO Chorus, ENO Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is presumably included in the ENO‘s Italian opera season as a fine specimen of a really bad nineteenth-century Italian opera. It is a large turkey stuffed with chestnuts. This concert performance, repeated on Tuesday 26 September, also conveniently showcases Jane Eaglen and a fine set of other first-rate voices, most of them also ENO regulars, and attracted an enthusiastic audience.
Boioto’s rework of Victor Hugo is promising: he adds a Manichean conflict between the sinister balladeer-informer Barnaba (halfway from Mefistofele to Iago), who lusts after the petite chanteuse Gioconda, and Gioconda’s saintly but helpless mother, La Cieca. Gioconda’s love for her mother forces her into self-destructive acts of generosity that promise grand excess for a soprano in a far bigger league than the obsessive but good-hearted street singer of the story.
But Ponchielli manages to lose the brash colour and sense of danger in the tale of seventeenth-century Venetian low life, lust and power politics. He reduces it to a set of thin set pieces for large singers. Not even a full-strength production, with thronging streets and a ballet, could rescue La Gioconda, so it’s just as well to do it as a concert. And performing in Italian at least gives you a chance to ignore the plot if you can’t take it seriously. But then nobody can take the Dance of the hours seriously, though Paul Daniels and the ENO played it with enough bravura to make it absurd in substance not just by association with hippopotamuses or a comic song about camp.
In fact, the ENO orchestra played a blinder throughout, replacing the missing substance with energy and attention to detail. The singers and the ENO chorus similarly gave their best. Jane Eaglen sang forcefully and accurately. The memory of her recent Proms Salome scene showed how little mileage there was by comparison in the music, but she at least made Gioconda intense. (There’s nothing wrong with having a big girl in a role like this, by the way. Think of Simone Signoret as a somewhat updated equivalent in Casque d’or or even Room at the top.) Catherine Wyn-Rogers as La Cieca looked slightly younger and considerably more glamorous than her putative daughter, but sang movingly. Anne-Marie Owens similarly brought a lot of voice to the tedious role of Laura, who is supposed to be torn with love but doesn’t really get much to do.
Dennis O’Neill was a fine old-fashioned Enzo, and Alastair Miles suitably severe as Alvise. Peter Sidhom as Barnaba pretty much stole the show. He made a musically dull excursus on the horrors of the Doge’s palace into the bitter rant about tyranny that Boioto probably had in mind but Ponchielli didn’t deliver, and he did a grand Rumpelstiltskin turn at the end when Gioconda escapes his embraces by killing herself. Alas, the work wasn‘t engaging enough to stop you wondering why she didn‘t just sock him one.