Tuesday 5 February 2019

A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie

Ponchielli: La Gioconda - La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
Ponchielli: La Gioconda - La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
Ponchielli La Gioconda; Hui He, Scott Hendricks, Ning Liang, Szilvia Vörös, Jean teitgen, Andrea Carè, dir: Olivier Py, cond: Paolo Carignani; De Munt/La Monnaie, Brussels Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ponchielli's melodrama re-imagined into the 20th century in a dramatic if distracting production

Ponchielli: La Gioconda - Hui He - La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
Ponchielli: La Gioconda - Hui He
La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
The only other time I have encountered Ponchielli's La Gioconda in the theatre was Opera North's production [directed by Philip Prowse it debuted in 1993 with Rosalind Plowright and was revived in 2000 with Claire Rutter]. So it was a pleasure to be able to visit Brussels for Olivier Py's new production at La Monnaie.

We caught the performance on Sunday 3 February 2019 at La Monnaie, directed by Olivier Py with designs by Pierre-Andre Weitz and conducted by Paolo Carignani. The run was substantially double cast and we saw Hui He as La Gioconda, Szilvia Vörös as Laura, Jean Teitgen as Alvise, Ning Liang as La Cieca, Andrea Carè as Enzo and Scott Hendricks as Barnaba.

La Gioconda is not a particularly subtle piece, and Arrigo Boito (who wrote the libretto, albeit under a pseudonym) would go on to write stronger pieces for Verdi.  Olivier Py's production had the virtue of making the most of the dramatic opportunities presented, and of grasping the (melo)drama confidently. But many of the elements seemed recycled from his 2017 production of Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in Berlin [see my review]. The multi-level set (by Pierre-Andre Weitz), the extensive use of dance, and particularly the vaguely 20th-century Fascist setting which provided little in the way of context or background for the action, never answering the question 'Who are these people?'. Boito's libretto sets the piece in the context of 17th century Venice and the fearsome Council of Ten, here we had black-clad armed men and much posturing.

The set was a large-scale concrete structure, tunnel-like, stretching into the distance, which reminded me of the Mussolini-era galleries which convey the traffic on stretches of road around Lake Garda. Gantries and whole platforms descended from the flies, so that Laura and Alivse's first appearance (in Act One) was from on high, never quite making contact with the populace below.

But the set's most notable feature was the water that covered much of the rear of the stage, so that chorus and dancers spent much of the time splashing about, and Bertrand Killy's lighting softened the set with the rippling shadows of light in water. So Venice was present by implication, the water, these rippling shadows, the witty reference to acqua alta in the choreography accompanying the overture and the presence of models of ships cross the stage in Acts Two and Four (these models reminded me of an image from Jeremy Deller's English Magic presented at the Venice Biennale in 2013, which was another layer of intriguing inference).

But Py did not seem to quite trust the piece, and each scene had extra elements which seemed to distract from, rather than contribute to the action. A group of dancers was ubiquitous, creating not only The Dance of the Hours (to some rather uninteresting and uncredited choreography), but other scenes, sometimes partially clad, sometimes scantily clad and sometimes naked. their contributions varied between puzzling and distracting. There was too much bad sex so that Enzo and Laura's important scene in Act Two was paired with another couple showing us how not to make love. And there was a series of baffling tableaux to accompany Barnaba's aria about the power structures in Venice, just plain silly and the aria needs no help.

Another big feature was the use of Carnival-mask-like heads, and in fact the opera opened with a character naked apart from a huge Carnival head, and Barnaba's final appearance in Act Four was from a giant Carnival head which added a distracting (and potentially ridiculous) element to the final scene as if Batman's The Joker had gatecrashed the wrong piece. Less distracting, and more understandable were the multiple coffins, used throughout the evening. Py seemed to be trying to give us complex layers of meta-theatre to add to dramaturgical depth to a piece which is pure melodrama (with some strange nods to Meyerbeerian Grand Opera).

Thankfully, Py's handling of the dramatic space was vivid and confident, a staircase appearing for the chorus in Act Two then disappearing, the stage covered in sparks descending from the flies for the conflagration at the end of Act Two, and of course the ubiquity of water. If you could accept Py's re-imagined universe then this was a thrillingly and confidently dramatic theatrical event. And Py and Paolo Carignani drew strong performances from a well-balanced cast.

We had to accept that Barnaba (Scott Hendricks) was evil, his nastiness came out of nowhere and the character has no 'Credo' such as the one Boito would give Iago. Hendricks snarled and prowled brilliantly, toying with and pawing Hui He's Gioconda from the outset so that the two generated the right tense atmosphere which led to the fire which burned during the final scene, gripping despite the giant Joker's head.

Hui He is quite an old-fashioned, non-naturalistic performer and this was a strength in a role like Gioconda, she had the power for the big moments and yet tenderness too. This Gioconda was no ballad singer, but an opera star (her first entrance was in Tosca's costume), and throughout the piece, it was Hui He's strength of personality and confidence in the melodrama which held our attention. She made us suspend disbelief in the romantic plot, and was by turns fierce and tender, with a superb account of 'Suicidio!' at the opening of Act Four.

The other roles are written in rather less depth, and one of the interesting factors in La Gioconda is that none of the men is admirable. Enzo (Andrea Carè) is happily two-timing Gioconda and drops her as soon as a chance of eloping with Laura occurs. Carè was quite a find. He has a fine lyric Italian voice, and gave a fine account of himself as the handsome two-timer, with a beautifully turned performance of his Act Two aria and powerful scenes with the two women in his life. By contrast, Jean Teitgen thrilled and glowered as Alvise, making his obsessive need for power and control, and terrible jealousy, into something riveting.

Laura is a woefully underwritten role, and she is horribly reactive, but Szilvia Vörös did everything required of her and in such a way as to make you regret that we did not learn more about this character. The role of La Gioconda's mother, La Cieca, is an important one and one that is easily overlooked. She is important to the plot, but also Gioconda's commitment to her relationship with her mother is a crucial factor in the opera. Ning Liang gave a dignified and very concentrated portrayal of the old blind lady, and she and Hui He made the mother/daughter relationship a believable thread running through the opera.

Olivier Py seemed to be relatively uninterested in the chorus, and they tended to sing presented in serried ranks. But the benefit of this was that we heard some very fine, and very stirring choral singing. Carignani and the orchestra gave strong support, and their account of the ballet music went a long way to compensate for the rather lack of compelling staging.

Ponchielli: La Gioconda - La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
Ponchielli: La Gioconda - La Monnaie/De Munt (Photo © Baus)
This was certainly a dramatic account of Ponchielli's melodrama, and in terms of singing and stage spectacle, we did not go away disappointed, though I could have wished for a staging which was rather less distracting.

La Monnaie has clearly invested a lot in La Gioconda, and has the confidence to give nine performances (running until 12 February). The production will travel to the co-producers in 2020 (Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, and Teatr Wielki, Warsaw).

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
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  • Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry (★★★★) - CD review
  • Everybody can! Nadine Benjamin's debut in Tosca (★★★★) - opera review
  • The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera - interview  
  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review 
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
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