La Gioconda at the MET

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
, 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 PatanÈ’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

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 piËce 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

image_description=Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera
product_title=Amilcare Ponchielli: La Gioconda
product_by=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.
product_id=Above: Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” [Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera]