Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 6, 9 September 2004
Think of Il Trovatore made ten times more stupid and you've got the plot of Ponchielli's La Gioconda.
Witches, betrayal, substituted poison, sleeping draughts, curses, suicide...need I go on?
Yet the wonder of this opera, performed in two concert performances by the Royal Opera this week, is that its composer rises above the banalities of the story to create a score that is almost as great as the mature Verdi works.
Set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito, Verdi's last and greatest collaborator, the opera is a treasure trove of thrilling choruses, lyrical arias and dramatic confrontations between characters who mostly hate each others' guts.
Boito wrote the libretto under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio, but who could be in doubt of the provenance of the poetry which inspired Ponchielli's greatest and only well-known score?
Boito skilfully combined the large scale of French Grand opera and the frayed emotions of Italian melodrama to facilitate the composer's strong points, resulting in a score which is usually enjoyable and sometimes memorable. The arias Suicido and Cielo e mar are frequently heard in concert, for example, and the Dance of the Hours remains one of the most famous segments of Disney's 1940 animation, Fantasia.
Monday night's audience was treated to a cast of the highest calibre. After her success in the recent recording of this opera, great things were expected of Violeta Urmana in the title role, and she did not disappoint. From beginning to end, she inhabited the character with the utmost competence, and was particularly affecting in the final scene, when she realises that the man she loves will never love her and decides to commit suicide.
As Barnaba, a spy of the Inquisition who declares his love for Gioconda only to be refused, Alexandru Agache was a dominating force throughout the work. Agache was marvellous in the title role of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden in 2002, and this performance was every bit as convincing.
Marcello Giordani played Enzo, who is loved by Gioconda but prefers Laura, a married woman. This Italian tenor goes from strength to strength, and his overwhelming singing of his first aria drew the first of many cheers that the performance was awarded by the audience.
Gioconda's mother, who is killed by Barnaba in the end, was superbly sung by Jill Grove, and Laura's husband, Alvise, was treated to a highly engaging performance by Eric Halfvarson. The only disappointment was Mariana Pentcheva as Laura, who was unable to fill a house this size without resorting to a scream.
Overall, however, the night was memorable. The Chorus of the Royal Opera House, under their new Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna, gave their all in their many set pieces, and the orchestra was in splendid - though occasionally uncontrolled - form under Antonio Pappano.