Sydney Arts Guide, 13 August 2023
Annabelle Drumm
 
Ponchielli: La Gioconda, Sydney, 9. und 12. August 2023
JONAS KAUFMANN IN LA GIOCONDA @ SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
 
 
Sydney Opera House is currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary and, to add to the festivities, Opera Australia offered a concert version of La Gioconda by Ponchielli last night (9 August 2023). It was a superb cast of mostly international performers including world famous tenor, Jonas Kaufmann accompanied by the Opera Australia chorus and orchestra.

All were under the baton of Pinchas Steinberg, former Permanent Guest Conductor of the Vienna State Opera and currently Chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic. Performing in the Opera House Concert Hall meant they could also make use of the organ with added a great boost to the audio.

La Gioconda is an opera not often heard in Australia for several reasons. It requires six extraordinarily powerful and versatile singers. Also, the staging demands are super big budget so, you are more likely to find it playing at La Scala and the Met. Composed by Amilcare Ponchielli, the storyline is based around a play by Victor Hugo from 1835 “Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”. Similar to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the original story is based around a male lead with the pretty girl and her mother as secondary characters. The opera flips the focus of Hugo’s play and the story revolves around the pretty girl, La Gioconda, instead. There are plenty of great dramatic opportunities including one moment where La Gioconda is wielding a dagger, swearing vengeance against her rival and in the next moment, on seeing her mother’s rosary given as a gift to protect the rival, spins on a dime and does all she can to save the rival’s life.

The music bounces between glorious, lush, romantic orchestration and true Grand Opera moments with the singers blasting the roof off the auditorium. It’s exhausting for any performer and a relief they have several days off before the second performance. Even without all the theatrical staging, this is one big opera which will leave you musically satisfied.

It’s worth reading the story before you go as all the visual clues you might normally find in an opera with sets and costumes are missing from this concert styled version. Set in Venice in the 1600s, the famous Carnevale di Venezia celebrations are in full swing. The irony appears within the first scene where the chorus sings “long live the Doge” yet, the Doge’s palace holds torture chambers and “stifling prisons” behind the gold and marble facade. The Inquisition is underway which means anyone can very easily be targeted and the suspicious townspeople will call for their execution.

In the opening scenes the story runs slowly and clearly, introducing each character and their relation to the others. Conductor Steinburg’s interpretation of the music was very pleasing though, at times, overpowered the soloists making them hard to hear.

The Opera soloists
With promotion of the performance centred around Jonas Kaufmann, he must be mentioned first. The singer has been suffering a mystery bacterial illness for several months which caused him to cancel many performances around the world and the reviews for those where he performed have offered sympathy. Compared to hearing him at his last appearance here in Sydney, he was singing at about 2/3rds volume, sounding cracked and blocked. When crescendos were required, Kaufmann threw everything he could into his singing which left one wondering how much of him would be left by morning. Even watching from a non-professional singer’s point of view, it was uncomfortable seeing him put such a strain on his body.

After interval, his vocals came a little clearer. The fine quality is still there to be heard and appreciated albeit in a scaled down version. His demeanour on stage was simply as one of the team and he stood back to give his leading lady the larger cheer at the end of the night.

The title role was played by Spanish soprano Saioa Hernández, student of Monserrat Caballé and Renata Scotto. Hernández regularly appears at La Scala and the Royal Opera House and is a hard hitting, powerful performer. We marvelled at her coping with the vast range required for the role, she was easily heard over the orchestra and chorus. Her dramatic skills altered for this “in concert” version of an opera which aided the story telling though, more interconnection with the other singers, particularly with the character of her mother, would have felt more compassionate. At times she felt isolated from the rest of the cast.

The classic baddie of the story, Barnaba the spy, was performed by French baritone Ludovic Tézier who has worked extensively with Kaufmann and even released an album with him of Opera duets. The audience loved this singer who was clear in his dramatic choices and easily covered the vocals of such a challenging role. He begins and ends the opera firstly setting the scene, then stepping into the drama. Tézier, sensitive to the limits of each singer, would expand to fill the stage with his presence when working solo, then bend his output to match whomever he was singing opposite in each scene. He received tremendous applause at the close of the opera which was well deserved. We look forward to seeing him again some time.

The only Australian in a leading role was mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble who has worked extensively in Europe. Playing the role of La Cieca, mother of La Gioconda, she seemed to be the only one given lyrical, gentle arias out of all the cast. Humble’s dramatic choices made her character very relatable with a rich, clear voice whilst remaining vulnerable. Her artistry was excellent. This is an artist we’d love to see in more Opera Australia productions representing the country that the company holds within its name.

Playing the role of Laura, the rival of La Gioconda, was Polish mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis. Known for her Verdi roles made her an ideal choice for Ponchielli’s work. Her introduction to the audience was subtle and easily forgotten but her more memorable work grew and expanded as the opera progressed showing her to be completely capable and a great asset to the cast.

Laura’s husband Alvise (Angelo in Victor Hugo’s play) was played by Ukraine raised bass Vitalij Kowaljow. If you have the Netrebko/Villazón DVD of La Bohème at home, Kowaljow played the role of Colline in that production. 15 years on from that filming, he is in fine form and played his sinister role beautifully. The music in his aria “Si morir ella de” has a rambunctious lilt which reminds one of the Golden Calf song of Don Giovanni. You can feel the galloping demons presiding over Venice and their elite families causing havoc for anyone who gets in the way.

The Music
Although La Gioconda isn’t often heard complete in Australia, there will be tunes you recognise which are often presented in concert form and on solo albums. The tenor’s “Cielo e mar” and the soprano’s terrifying “Suicidio in quest fieri momenti” are a couple of examples. Best known music from the entire opera is the ballet from Act III “Dance of the Hours”, an instrumental work that is used frequently by ballet schools around the world and featured in the original Disney film “Fantasia” complete with dancing hippopotami, ostriches, elephants and alligators.




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
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