La Gioconda is a sprawling, multi faceted opera, with sizeable roles for each of the main voice types. Quirky orchestration and double-crossers aplenty keep the audience guessing. One or two clever and original flashes from director Martin Lloyd-Evans were enough to distract from a slightly uneven cast in Opera Holland Park’s production of Ponchielli’s melodrama.
It starts quite humbly, with just a few interweaving strings, in no rush to swell to its grand proportions and looking very modern with sheer concrete walls and pairs of shoes dotted neatly about the stage. What are shoes meant to signify? Something about how people, like shoes, are only satisfied in pairs? Of course not. Just a little token modernity to spruce up an ancient opera. No amount of teasing metaphors can dress this as anything other than a messy, macabre fantasy. But at least it’s a good one.
A solid performance from Olafur Sigurdarson as Baraba the malign manipulator put me in mind of Iago, and how this story could easily have centred on his twisted character rather than that of Gioconda.
As Gioconda, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’ acting was as over the top as her heaving chest, (and as hard not to notice) or could it be that she was told to bring out the pathological side of her character? Either way there wasn’t any hint of a character morally torn between murder and clemency, just a psychopath who could flip at any moment. Unfortunately this is what stopped me feeling very much for her, and what drew laughter from the audience at times of intended intensity.
That said, her voice had some sublime moments, as when she learns the name of the woman who saves her blind mother from being burnt as a witch. Jeffers also changed the tone of her voice at key moments, sort of twisting the knife, which was a skilful touch. The Suicide Aria was sung well, but anything other than Maria Callas’ famous and furious version is likely to sound tepid.
David Soar, playing Alvise (another murderous nutter), had the most luxurious voice of the whole cast, braying and proud of his sadism. When he opened the third act it was like someone had turned a light on. A spotlight, in fact. On an opera singer.
Priests who masturbate before they sing the vespers are what you have to expect these days, whether it means something or not. Thankfully the set, direction and choreography did what they should do: smooth over the static parts of the piece so that there’s never any “park and bark” delivery going on.