Australian Book Review, 11 August 2023
by Peter Rose
Ponchielli: La Gioconda, Sydney, 9. und 12. August 2023
La Gioconda
A memorable performance of Ponchielli’s opera
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–86) wrote ten operas, but only one of them is still performed – La Gioconda – and few attending Opera Australia’s concert performances in Sydney will have heard it often.

Ponchielli – Italy’s leading composer between Verdi and Puccini – was born in Paderno, near Cremona. He was taught music by his father, the church organist. After graduating at the Milan Conservatory he returned to Paderno as a music teacher and organist. In 1881, he joined the staff at his alma mater, where his students included Puccini and Mascagni.

I promessi sposi (1856), based on the novel by Alessandro Manzoni, was well received, but it was La Gioconda that had worldwide success, when Ponchielli was forty-five, though the original season ran only to four performances. All his relatively short life, Ponchielli was eclipsed by Verdi – but who wasn’t? The year of his graduation saw the premieres of La traviata and Il trovatore.

There are reasons why La Gioconda – though favoured by some of the finest sopranos and tenors of the twentieth century – is rarely performed. First, it demands five principals of the first rank. Such don’t grow on trees. Gustav Kobbé is dry on the subject: ‘Not always does “Cielo e mar” [the great Act 1 tenor aria] flow as suavely as it did from the throat of Caruso.’ Second, the opera has many detractors. Charles Osborne wrote: ‘The plot of La Gioconda is preposterous, and most of its characters distinctly unpleasant. The behaviour of the tenor hero, Enzo, is extremely repugnant, and even La Gioconda seems ready to stab people at the drop of a rosary.’

Apart from ‘Cielo e mar’ and Gioconda’s suicide aria, the best-known music comes from the ballet: the Dance of the Hours. (Part of me – doubtless a base, reprehensible part – always longs to sneak a nap or read a novella during opera ballets, but Ponchielli’s melodious romp was dispatched with panache.)

The libretto was written by ‘Tobia Gorria’, possibly an anagram of Arrigo Boito, composer of Mefistofele and librettist of Verdi’s late masterworks, Otello and Falstaff. The story is based on Hugo’s play Angelo, tyran de Padoue (1835). The story is set in seventeenth-century Venice. The prosperous maritime republic is led by the Doge and the Council of Ten, with its spies and Inquisition-like tendencies. There are four succinct acts: The Lion’s Mouth; The Rosary; The Ca’ d’oro; and The Orfano Canal.

La Gioconda had its premičre at La Scala on 8 April 1876. (The title, by the way, has nothing to do with a certain drawcard by the Seine – it means The Ballad Singer.)

With plots of this fatuity and characters of such repugnance, there is much to be said for concert performances, especially in the newly enhanced Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House, the perfect venue for full-blooded operas of this kind. Whatever those engineers and acousticians did, they got it right. Every component had a warm, natural resonance: orchestra, principals, chorus, not forgetting the organ, which dominates the end of Act 1. (The contrast with Melbourne’s brassy, unresonant Hamer Hall is graphic.) Let us hope the new regime at OA uses the Concert Hall often. Indeed, it would be impossible to stage Ponchielli’s extravaganza next door on the pinched Joan Sutherland Theatre stage.

Pleasingly, the score is more exposed, more conspicuous, in any successful concert performance. Maestro Pinchas Steinberg has conducted here before (a concert version of Parsifal in 2017). On this occasion, he seemed even more comfortable, drawing playing of considerable refinement and attentiveness from the Opera Australia Orchestra, right from the Prelude, which introduces La Cieca’s great theme, a tune quite worthy of Jules Massenet. Steinberg brought out every nuance in Ponchielli’s artful and effective orchestration.

The singing was uniformly excellent. Where to start after such a performance?

French baritone Ludovic Tézier sang Barnaba, the state spy and impossibly evil pursuer of ballad-singer Gioconda. We have heard Tézier once before, as Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier (Sydney and Melbourne, 2019). Tézier – at his peak in his mid-fifties – is a celebrated Posa, Don Giovanni, Hamlet, Renato, and Scarpia. He often appears with Kaufmann, and they have just recorded an album of duets together. Reviewing Chénier in 2019, I wrote: ‘Thrilling it was to hear a youngish Verdi baritone of this scale, ring, clarity, and dramatic power. It brought back memories of Sherrill Milnes.’

Tézier’s performance as Barnaba was simply stupendous. One seasoned baritone I spoke to during interval (when we could hear ourselves talk above the fireworks over the Harbour) described it as a masterclass, one for the ages.

Barnaba is one of the most arduous roles in the Italian baritone’s repertory. Alan Blyth has suggested that he is ‘Iago and Scarpia rolled into one devilish character’. Much of Barnaba’s best music comes in the first two acts. Here, Tézier’s legato singing and burnished tone were at their most potent – a virtuoso performance of a kind we may have to wait a long time to hear again.

Equally memorable was Saioa Hernández as Gioconda. Hernández, who was making her Australian début, is a protegée of Renata Scotto and Montserrat Caballé. Her roles include Aida, Tosca, Lady Macbeth, Norma, Violetta, and Lucia. She has sung Gioconda before, and she will doubtless do it again, given the sheer amplitude and steeliness of her voice, just right for Ponchielli’s heroine, who has much impassioned and anguished music throughout the night. The role also demands a strong lower register, but Hernández was unfazed by the wide tessitura. The Spanish singer drew the best from all her partners, especially Kaufmann at the end of Act 2. The highlight was Gioconda’s ‘Suicidio’, in Act 4, which was sung with great artistry and resourcefulness. Gioconda, though a famously taxing role, brought out the best in this young soprano (just turned forty), who was singing even more ringingly at the end of this long opera. Hernández was the most expressive and absorbed of the singers; she must be a magnetic presence in staged productions.

Deborah Humble – fresh from her memorable performances as Erda and Waltraute in Melbourne Opera’s recent Ring cycle, and preparing to sing Fricka and Waltraute in Brisbane for OA – was La Cieca, Gioconda’s blind, embattled mother, whom everyone seems to want to eliminate. Seldom can La Cieca’s Act 1 aria, ‘Voce di donna o d’angelo’, have been sung with such elegance.

Polish singer Agnieszka Rehlis returns to Sydney as Laura after recent performances as Amneris in Aida. Rehlis is also a frequent Azucena and Waltraute, and is in demand as Lucretia in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Much of the opera’s best music is in Act 2. Laura – unhappy wife of Alvise (Vitalij Kowaljow) – has a fine duet with her lover, Enzo Grimaldo. This is followed by an extended duet with her nemesis (and improbable saviour) Gioconda, during which Laura has one of the great moments in the mezzo repertoire: ‘L’amo come il fulgor del creato’. Rehlis sang with dignity and feeling.

This is Jonas Kaufmann’s fifth appearance with OA, beginning with a brilliant concert in 2014, followed by the concert versions of Parsifal and Chénier, then a memorable Lohengrin in 2022. The voice – an unusual tenor, not really Italianate, and with distinct baritonal qualities – has altered. There is a certain caution; the high notes are careful, mortal, often diminished. The German husbands the voice, even hushes it.

This is Kaufmann’s first Enzo. It should suit him well. ‘Cielo e mar’ – the sweetest of tenor arias – was sung ŕ la Kaufmann, subtly and delicately, without the explosive finish we know from Corelli, Bergonzi, and Pavarotti.

Best of all was the Act 4 trio for Enzo, Laura, and Gioconda that follows the discovery that Gioconda has indeed saved Enzo’s lover. This was bel canto singing at its most eloquent – nothing forced, nothing vulgarised.

Ponchielli makes frequent use of the large chorus, and the Opera Australia Chorus was responsive and galvanised, as it if had been waiting to sing this opera for years.

This was a superlative concert, one wholly deserving of the prolonged ovation at the end. Lovers of Italian opera should not miss the second and final concert on Saturday night. Saioa Hernández’s and Ludovic Tézier’s performances will be spoken of for decades.

(La Gioconda may not be ubiquitous in opera houses, but there is a substantial discography. Maria Callas, who made her Italian début as Gioconda in 1947, recorded it twice in the 1950s, the first time in boundless, opulent voice, then, a mere seven years later, with those dark, covered notes and the terrifying top. Bruno Bartoletti conducted it for Decca, with a starry cast: Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Agnes Baltsa, and Sherrill Milnes. Listen for Caballé’s floated high B flat at the end of La Cieca’s aria. Best of all perhaps is Lamberto Gardelli’s recording, also on Decca, with Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Marilyn Horne, and Robert Merrill. YouTube has a magnificent Laura/Gioconda duet with Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry from a Covent Garden recital, glorious singing from these two charismatic singers.)

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