Amilcare Ponchielli’s 1880 opera La Gioconda received its 54th performance since 1974 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 2 February. Starring Marcelo Alvarez, Marianne Cornetti, Lado Ataneli, and Hui He in the title role, it was an evening of farce and tragedy brought to beautiful life.

© Bettina Stoess
© Bettina Stoess

La Gioconda is best known for two things: an outrageous story and the fact that its Act III ballet may just be the most parodied of all pieces of classical music. Gioconda is a street singer who is in love with Enzo, a nobleman, but he’s in love with Laura, who’s married to Alvise, the State Inquisitor and the boss of Barnaba, a spy for the Inquisition and general baddie who has a thing for Gioconda, who politely tells him not to bother. What is a spurned baritone to do but accuse the soprano’s blind mother of witchcraft, betray the fleeing lovers and generally cause chaos and death?

It takes a strong cast and a good orchestra to prevent La Gioconda from becoming a farce, and the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper was more than up to the task. Led by Jesus Lopes Cobos, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper played elegantly, allowing the singers to take center stage and shine.

As the Lyric Tenor in Love with a Mezzo, Marcelo Alvarez sang with glamour and ease, his “Cielo e mar” a joy to listen to. As Laura, his lover, Marianne Cornetti owned the role of this noble woman in an unhappy marriage, her voice big and full, rising effortlessly to the challenge of her arias and ensembles. The cat fight with Gioconda over Enzo, “E un anatema!... L’amo come il fulgor creato”, was particularly well-rendered.

Gioconda herself was performed by the Chinese soprano Hui He, who was, the audience was warned, feeling poorly. Indeed, she started the evening off shakily, her voice thin and rather faint, but as the evening progressed she warmed up until her final aria in Act IV, when she contemplates the mess she’s in, filled the house with its power and pain. Gioconda is not an angel: she is willing to shank her rival until realizing that she owes the woman for saving her mother’s life, and even at the bitter end wonders if it would not have been better to do so than to agree to sleep with the baritone. Hui He showed Gioconda’s personal journey as a real struggle. Should she ruin her life to repay this woman and lose her lover, or should she be selfish and leave Laura to kill herself, as her affronted husband demands? Despite being under the weather, Hui He managed to convince the audience that you can make the right choice even when it (literally) kills you.

© Bettina Stoess
© Bettina Stoess
As the evening’s villains, Lado Ataneli’s Barnaba left a bit to be desired. Barnaba is one of those operatic villains who, when left with the body at the end, can easily be imagined rolling himself a cigarette and thinking, “On to the next”, and Ataneli played him as such, helped by a costume that made him look like a 16th-century Elvis. Unfortunately his baritone was not nearly evil enough to convince. It would perhaps have been better had his role been swapped with Ante Jerkunica, who as the cuckolded Alvise had only one act to murder his wife and treat the guests to a ballet about the whole affair. Jerkunica positively dripped aristocratic rage. “My wife? Oh yes, she’s killing herself in the bedroom now; do sit down while the ballerinas explain why.”

The ballet, “Dance of the Hours”, told the story of the opera for the benefit of Alvise’s party guests and any audience members who might have slept through the first couple of acts. Members of the Deutsche Oper’s corps de ballet performed as Enzo, Laura and Alvise – only the ballet did not have the benefit of Gioconda working behind the scenes to make everything fall neatly into place, and so ended with Alvise triumphant. It is perhaps difficult for modern audiences not to grin as they listen to the ballet music (thank Walt Disney for any visions of dancing hippos that float through your head), but the ballet was interesting enough to distract from the piece’s pop culture baggage.

Pop culture baggage and a notorious story aside, the Deutsche Oper has outdone itself with beautiful sets and costumes as well as excellent performances. The current La Gioconda is lavish, just the sort of traditional production that the story demands (no updating for this opera; it simply wouldn’t do). Supporting performances by Dana Beth Miller, Ben Wager, Gideon Poppe and Paul Kaufmann rounded out the opera, and the chorus of the Deutsche Oper had an excellent time portraying Venetian peasants, pirates, and nobles. It is not to be missed.