Though Opera Holland Park's new production of La Gioconda is being sold as a novelty, in truth the work has always been at the margins of the repertoire rather than outside it. It's only a couple of years since The Royal Opera opened their season with concert performances of it; English National Opera also did it in concert as part of their Italian series; and the Met will produce it next year. Still, it certainly deserves to be seen more often than it is, and these performances at Kensington are a rare opportunity to witness the piece staged in this country.
Ponchielli's most famous opera by far, La Gioconda has hints of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra in both setting and musical tinta; the location of Venice comes through in the rippling string Prelude to Gioconda just as much as it does in Verdi's better-known work. The two operas have something, or rather someone, else in common, too: Arrigo Boito, the librettist for the whole of the Ponchielli and the 1881 revision of Boccanegra, whose darker, more dramatic situations than in the 1857 version are down not least to the fiery temperament of Boito's additions.
La Gioconda has a superb score that brims with drama and tension; the ensembles in particular are outstanding and often gripping, and even the lesser numbers are efficient and well-designed. Yet the plot, based on a Victor Hugo play, is tortuous, and was rendered even more so by Boito's treatment, which added the character of La Cieca (Gioconda's blind mother).
The convoluted theatrical aspect is undoubtedly why the opera does not get produced more often, and with the best will in the world, Martin Lloyd-Evans' elegant staging for OHP doesn't overcome the problems. The anonymity of Jamie Vartan's set lent the evening too neutral an air, rather than embracing the work's melodramatic core. There's nothing to do with a weird opera like this but to go with its madness. Instead, Vartan provides rather too chic a backdrop and Lloyd-Evans imposes one or two ridiculous interventions – Barnaba, the vengeful spy, ends Act II by announcing 'La commedia non è finita' in a reversal of the close of Pagliacci, and the chorus performs an ill-rehearsed and not particularly inspiring mime during the Prelude – rather than getting to grips with the guts of the work. I loved the ingenious staging of the boats, and the depiction of the sinister Council of the Ten as ten pairs of gloved hands emerging through a wall was brilliant – but too often when singing solo arias, the singers stood on one spot without much to do.
Two very fine vocal performances were on offer. In the title role, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers increased with confidence as the evening progressed and gave a portrayal that was both emotional and vocally accomplished. There were some wonderfully steely top notes, while her sense of line and text was impeccable. Formerly of The Royal Opera's Young Artists Programme, Jeffers has risen in stature and deserves to be heard more often in London; appearances at the Proms and as Senta at the Barbican are highly anticipated.
Still, for me the outstanding vocal performance came from David Soar as Alvise Badoero. Here is a singer with enough mettle in his voice to sing in an Italiante manner, cutting through the orchestra with ease and delivering his all-too-few lines with style. At the other end of the scale, Nuala Willis was vocally inadequate as La Cieca, albeit well-cast physically. Olafur Sigurdarson was strongly committed as Barnaba, but I find him rather wooden and inclined to push his voice too hard. Russian tenor Vadim Zaplechny was a brilliantly neurotic presence and sang powerfully as Enzo; occasionally, though, his pitching went awry, especially during his famous aria 'Cielo e mar'. Yvonne Howard was exceptional as Laura, however, and when she duetted with Jeffers the results were riveting.
Peter Robinson's conducting wasn't always an asset of the evening, either. He deals in plain cooking: a simple, straightforward approach that tends to pay off in big ensembles and always keeps the music together, with great dedication as ever from the City of London Sinfonia, but his approach is entirely devoid of imaginative phrasing or variation during passages which need more flexibility of speed and dynamic. However, as the evening wore on and the night came upon us, the atmosphere and drive increased, and the latter stages of the drama were much more thrilling than the earlier acts.
This was a huge undertaking for Opera Holland Park, one which perhaps taxed it beyond its undeservedly limited resources at times. Nevertheless, the enterprise was admirable and more than worthwhile; nobody with an interest in Italian opera of the period will want to miss it.
Preview of the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Opera Holland Park: