LA GIOCONDA, Opera Australia at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, 9 and 12 August 2023
Question: is an ailing Jonas Kaufmann better than no Kaufmann? The audience had a choice on August 9 as the superstar visitor was much improved in the second half. Post-interval, the creaks, croaks, and mid-range squeaks were absent. Nevertheless, for a face-of-the-production celebrity, he seemed subdued throughout. It was left to Spanish soprano Saioa Hernández in the title role to deliver the vocal fireworks – which she did, in spades. Having sung the role, to acclaim, in Davide Livermore’s La Scala staging in 2022, she was comfortable despite a less than ideal concert setting.
For the singers in particular and an audience in general, La Gioconda doesn’t much lend itself to the minimal treatment of evening gowns and music stands. The plot and labyrinthine goings-on are arcane and absurd – even for an opera – and with no visual clues and token interaction between performers, placed as needs must in a line across the stage, the piece simply cannot deliver the florid load of Arrigo Boito’s libretto.
Amilcare Ponchielli’s music doesn’t help much either, as the best – "Dance of the Hours" – is given to a mid-show ballet (a must in the 1870s) and merely an orchestral interlude in this instance. Here, with no other visuals to distract, it’s indelibly linked with the lady hippo in a pink tutu in Disney’s Fantasia. Alas, no crocodile corps de ballet, but throughout, the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus did themselves proud nonetheless.
In essence, Gioconda is in love with sea captain Enzo (Kaufmann). While out with her blind mother Cieca (Deborah Humble) she is noticed by Inquisition spy Barnaba (Ludovic Tézier). He lusts, she rejects. He decides revenge is the thing, so he tells everyone Cieca is a witch and must die. Inquisition high-up Badoero (Vitalij Kowaljow) arrives, with wife Laura (Agnieska Rehlis), who saves Cieca. She gives Laura her rosary in thanks (touchingly sung “Voce di donna o di Angelo” by Humble). However, there is funny business between Laura and Enzo. Barnaba works out that Enzo is actually a banished nobleman to whom Laura was once engaged. Barnaba recognises an opportunity to detach Gioconda from Enzo and says he will row Laura out to Enzo’s ship.
Gioconda overhears and decides to take revenge on Laura (not Enzo or Barnaba, notice), but when she sees a familiar rosary around Laura’s neck she realises who saved her mother. So she says she’ll help Laura escape her vengeful husband who demands Laura drink poison so his family isn’t dishonoured. (This is medieval Venice, by the way, not 21st century Pakistan.) Gioconda takes the poison vial and instead gives Laura a drug to simulate death. Displaying his manly integrity in the form of Laura’s dead body at a party, Badoero appals everyone, including Gioconda who spirits Laura away.
With the actual poison in her keeping Gioconda contemplates her own death in the aria “Suicidio” (Hernández is particularly splendid in these moments). Enzo arrives to stab Gioconda for taking Laura’s body. But when he finds she’s alive the two sing a tune of gratitude to the luckless Gioconda and leave. More rowing. And even more rowing as approaching gondolas are heard (not really, no SFX here) as Barnaba approaches to claim his prey. But Gioconda stabs herself and dies. Barnaba tries to ruin her last moments by telling her he drowned Cieca, but too late, Gioconda’s gone. The end.
None of this is conveyed on a concert stage, however, and with a less convoluted scenario and more inspiring music, it wouldn’t matter. Yet it was Rossini who said of Wagner that he wrote lovely moments but awful quarter hours and he could also have meant Ponchielli. With only the Gollum-like conductor (Pinchas Steinberg) to relieve an otherwise static but crazy vista, La Gioconda is a long three hours-plus. It was an unexpected thrill to hear Hernández, as well as Tézier, Humble, Kowaljow and Rehlis, but the largely out-of-sorts drawcard inevitably drew focus to no good end. One hopes a semi-standing ovation signified appreciation of them and the orchestra and chorus.