Italian Opera festival – La Gioconda - Amilcare Ponchielli
English National Opera
On 26 September 2000 I saw in the Italian Opera Festival Series at the Coliseum – the ENO’s production of La Gioconda, Ponchielli’s masterpiece. What is perhaps less known in that he was the teacher of Puccini. The libretto was by Arrigo Boito. This production was actually a concert performance albeit it in costume conducted by Paul Daniel.
Jane Eaglen took the role of Gioconda, a singer, who declines from mere gloom to raving despair, though you’d never know it from the music which has unexpected bouts of jollity, especially the jaunty “Morir! E troppo orribile!” at the begin of Act III when Alvise invites his wife to drink poison! But one fellow whose music is unmistakeably in character is Barnaba, a spy of the Inquisition and a ballad singer who brings about Gioconda’s downfall by reuniting her fiancé with an ex-girlfriend. Murders her blind mother and does his damnest to subject her to a fate worse than death, which she manages to avoid by committing suicide!
Peter Sidhom really brings the character to life with the occasional sneer and raised eyebrow, and rounded the whole thing off with an enormous shout of rage. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Le Cieca, Gioconda’s blind mother) was suitably tragic and brought great emotional depth to her “Voce di donna”. Dennis O’Neill, a great international operatic veteran in the role of Enzo Grimaldi (a Genoese Prince disguised as a sea-captain) brought to the role Italian passion that a man of half his age would have been proud of! He was in 2000 awarded the CBE. Anne Marie Owens was Laura Adorno, a Genoese lady. Alistair Miles was Alvise, her husband and chief of the State Inquisition.
The cast was enhanced by a whole crowd of Regatta spectators – senators, noblemen & women, masks (harlequins, pantaloons, dominoes), populace, sailors, monks, knights and singers. The opera also contains the tenor showpiece “Cielo e Mar”. Ponchielli, an ex-bandmaster really knew how to use an orchestra and Paul Daniel really gave it the works particularly in the Act I furiana and hair-raising Act III finale.
The symbol of the rosary has quite a poignant role in the opera. Alvise orders the arrest and torture of La Cieca whom Barnaba has accused of casting spells when she said she was purely praying for the dead. But when Laura sees the old woman’s rosary she intercedes on her behalf. In gratitude La Cieca gives the rosary to her, saying to Laura: “…I offer you this rosary with my prayers added: pray, accept it, it will bring you luck. May my benediction be on your head.”
Later Gioconda confronts Laura who is her rival in love with a dagger but on seeing Laura take out La Cieca’s rosary to pray she realises she must help the woman who saved her mother’s life and gives her a mask, enabling her to escape.
La Gioconda is most famous for the ballet intermezzo “The Dance of the Hours” in Act III, Scene 2, in the ballroom in the palace of the Inquisition judge Alvise where a splendid ballet is entertaining the noble guests. The ballet is said to symbolise good over evil and it is thus in ironical contrast to the opera itself which abounds in base intrigues. A day and night of 24 hours are featured symbolically by dancers in-groups of six.
The introduction pictures the first pale gleam of dawn, the pale morning light interpreted by violins and flutes as the dancers softly glide in. Slowly the music rises to climax: it is full daylight and the noon hour dancers come on to the stage in their light and shining costumes. As afternoon and evening creep on the music softens and takes on a more sombre character. So follow the peaceful hours of the night when the music is but a low whisper. In conclusion all 24 hours assemble in a whirling dance of rivalry, victory going to the hours of light.