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Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's
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La Gioconda at the MET

It probably wasn’t intended as a symbol of anything in particular, but at the end of Act II, midway through the October 6 performance of La Gioconda, Enzo’s ship failed to burst into flames, thereby letting the curtain down most unsatisfactorily on what is usually one of the liveliest act finales in grand opera.

Amilcare Ponchielli: La Gioconda

La Gioconda: Deborah Voigt; Laura: Olga Borodina; La Cieca: Ewa Podleś; Enzo: Aquiles Machado; Barnaba: Carlo Guelfi; Alvise Badoero: Orlin Anastassov; Dance of the Hours choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and danced by Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella. Conducted by Daniele Callegari. Metropolitan Opera.

Above: Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." [Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera]


You recall the plot of La Gioconda, I’m sure: Barnaba (hateful spy of the Ten) lusts for Gioconda (street singer), who loves Enzo (prince in exile), who carries a torch – literally, in Act II – for Laura, unhappily married to Duke Alvise, capo of the Ten, secret dictators of Venice. Barnaba persuades an incendiary mob that Gioconda’s mother, La Cieca (the blind woman), is a witch, but she is saved by a mysterious masked lady (Laura, of course), who has noticed La Cieca muttering to her rosary. In gratitude, La Cieca gives her the beads. Therefore (in Act II), Gioconda is flummoxed when she corners Enzo’s secret inamorata, only to have the hussy pull out – yes! – that very rosary! Gioconda then saves Laura (who saved her mother from burning), and confronts Enzo. But Duke Alvise, warned by Barnaba, is heading their way with a small, fast fleet. Desperate, Enzo tosses that torch he’s been carrying into his Dalmatian pirate vessel, which should go up in smoky, fiery fury as the curtain falls, with two whole acts of this foolishness still to come. In previous seasons, over forty years of the Met’s splendid, old-fashioned and scenic production, the exploding ship was always a hit, even when Enzo forgot to hurl the torch. But on October 6, at the Met, the ship merely glowed slightly red, as if embarrassed to be presenting such a farrago in the present day and age without the full-blooded singing and intense performing that alone can justify it. (Dear irate Ponchielli fans: I agree it’s a wonderful score – but you have to really do the thing, hurl yourself in the mouth of the wolf, to put it across.)

GIOCONDA_Anastassov_0668_MS.pngOrlin Anastassov as Alvise in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

The fizzling ship may or may not have been intentional, but those of us who love La Gioconda and think it embodies the grandest operatic traditions if given half a chance (which is to say, with at least three of its six principals sung by impassioned and technically competent individuals), could hardly help but see the misfiring yacht as emblematic of the state of what used to be basic Italian rep: Aida, Norma, Trovatore, Forza, Cavalleria Rusticana, Tosca, Ernani, Butterfly, Chenier – how do you cast these once necessary operas, when hardly anyone around can sing the parts, much less four to six stars at a go? Like Laura on her catafalque in Act III, the corpse may still be breathing, but you can understand why so many visitors are quietly leaving flowers, their thoughts on better days.

My ever-declining tale of variably unsatisfactory Giocondas since this production was new has included Tebaldi, Bumbry, Arroyo, Marton, Dimitrova, Millo, Urmana and now Voigt. Tebaldi, past her heyday, knew how to wallow in distinguished misery; Bumbry could flirt with suicide, and commit it with menace hissing in her tongue; Arroyo floated those high notes and give them an edge of despair; Dimitrova was loud; Marton could act for six, as she proved on the disastrous – but thrilling! – night of Carlo Bini’s unscheduled debut and Patané’s unscheduled farewell.

GIOCONDA_Machado_1906.pngAquiles Machado as Enzo in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Cory Weaver courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Urmana made beautiful sounds, but was duller than Debbie Voigt – however Voigt has never been an Italianate singer (her Aida was stiff), though she occasionally turned out phrases in the later scenes of Gioconda that implied some notion of what the part ought to contain. Her “Suicidio” was an effort in the right direction, if hardly draped in foreboding shadow. Instead of floating, her “Enzo adorato” wobbled like a balloon on a windy day. Her higher voice – the voice that used to sing Ariadne – is now seldom to be relied upon; her lower range is passably supported but without much depth or character, even if that had ever been her gift. I don’t know what – temperament or surgery or fach – is Miss Voigt’s problem, but as her Isoldes last year suggested, she may soon pass the point of getting through major parts effectively. Like Millo, who also failed of great initial promise, she will become a fallback singer, nobody’s first choice.

Olga Borodina has a golden age voice, dark and plummy, and the rare gift (among Russians) of singing French and Italian roles beautifully, in something resembling proper style. Not only individual phrases of her Laura but her duets with Voigt and Machado (and the lovely trio with both) were happy times for everyone present.

GIOCONDA_Scene_9328_MS.pngA scene from Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

No one has ever publicly explained why Ewa Podleś, who made an outstanding Met debut in Handel’s Rinaldo (a killer role) a quarter century ago, and who has been an international star ever since, was ignored here throughout the Volpe era. Madame Podleś is a contralto of striking idiosyncrasy – this is not a voice to blend in or be ignored, but one that sticks out, that must lead or be cut dead. In the embarrassingly small role of La Cieca, she was not only audible over the great Act III ensemble (usually, who even notices La Cieca is on stage at that moment, much less hears her?), she convincingly acted a blind woman throughout the evening (in marked contrast to the singer who strolled through the part two years ago), and her solos were weird, booming, echoes from the pre-digital age of untamed sound. That she would triumph was a foregone conclusion; that she would shame the house that has scorned her uniqueness was breathtaking.

Aquiles Machado looks like a Velasquez dwarf but struts and frets as if he were tall and lordly – an illusion Mesdames Voigt and Borodina did all they could to enhance, standing two steps down, leaning on his shoulder to sing, like the colleagues they are – but his pretty tenor has little passion in it, and when he pushes it, a wobble makes an unwelcome appearance.

Barnaba’s disgusting desires are the engine that drives the crazy plot. Carlo Guelfi’s Barnaba, however, is more bureaucrat than demon – his singing is dry, without gloat or drool, much less sharpened fangs. His final cry of exasperation (Gioconda having stabbed herself to escape his lusts) was – a cry of exasperation: “You filled in the wrong form, you fool!” (is not the proper text). When Cornell MacNeil sang Barnaba, even in nearly voiceless old age, his naturally ugly voice was filled with contempt and oily intimacy, his final frustrated snarl expressed four acts of desperate lechery. He was like an exploding ship.

Orlin Anastassov made a stolid Alvise, more worried about his hair-do than his wife’s betrayal, and he shrugged when one of his party guests turned out to be an enemy bent on vengeance.

GIOCONDA_Voigt_Podles_Borod.png(Left to Right) Deborah Voigt as Gioconda, Ewa Podles as La Cieca, and Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Under Daniele Callegari, the Met orchestra often reminded us of the score’s many felicities, but one couldn’t help thinking that if the tuba player is too bored by the oom-pah, oom-pah of his part in the ballet to stay in tune, he may have chosen the wrong instrument for his career. The chorus seemed unusually cardboard in their movements – can they simply not be persuaded that Gioconda matters? – and the revised stage direction, if it avoids some confusions (the correct characters are masked in the proper scenes, as has not always been the case), creates others: Act III now ends with the blind woman taking a pratfall center stage, Gioconda having disappeared – traditionally, it should end with Barnaba driving the old woman off (to drown her, we learn later), while the music underscores the tragic isolation of Gioconda, unloved and now orphaned, front and center, searching desperately. (How many other operas have mother-daughter duets? I can only think of I Lombardi, Mazeppa, Elektra and The Medium.)

And what happened, you are wondering, to the Dance of the Hours? Or did Walt Disney make that up? No – it’s here all right – in Act III, scene 2, at Duke Alvise’s party, appetizer for the pièce de resistance, croque madame (or, hostess in aspic). (Laura, like the opera, isn’t really dead – Gioconda has slipped her a potion – in Act IV, she runs off with Enzo to Dubrovnik. I’m not making all this up, you know.) At the Met, Christopher Wheeldon has devised a winsome extended pas de deux for Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella, based on clock hands stiffly telling the hours while Letizia and Angel, anything but stiff, whirl and leap and sizzle between tick-tocks. They got the biggest hand of the night. They were on fire.

John Yohalem

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