La Gioconda is based on a libretto by poet and composer Arrigo Boito, inspired by a minor drama by Victor Hugo. It is one of the most outrageous and incredible plots in all of opera. The succession of twists and turns of events is incessant, one more absurd than the next, in the service of a gruesome, dark story, not exempt from logical inconsistencies and being hard to comprehend. The model seems that of a gothic feuilleton, and it can only be described as “tacky”.

La Gioconda at La Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Director Davide Livermore embraces this aspect instead of taming it, adding flying angels and demonic figures harnessed to the ceiling, other angelic figures appearing whenever the Virgin Mary is mentioned, while the ubiquitous video projections show clouds, gigantic women swimming in the fog, dreamy views of Venice and gondolas in an apotheosis of kitsch which is overwhelming at first. Venice is the undisputed protagonist of his interpretation: it is represented in dreamlike views, a sort of post-modern dystopia full of ghosts and supernatural presences. The images are, as always with Livermore, exceedingly beautiful. In the prologue a bridge resembling the Rialto is on a revolving platform, and the action takes place both on it and under it. The bridge and the Ca’ d’Oro in Act 3 are frames covered in gauze, looking like marble, or transparent, depending on the lighting (Antonio Castro), with Venetian motifs and accents. Livermore makes full use of the enormous La Scala stage, presenting a gigantic ship in Act 2, again solid or transparent depending on the lighting, with some 120 choristers as sailors. It's impressive and it does justice to the rich musical experience, without trying to make the opera into something it’s not.

Stefano La Colla (Enzo)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Saioa Hernández’ strong soprano was perfectly suited to the role of the protagonist: her high notes were secure and shining, although her timbre in the middle and low registers may not be to everybody’s taste, but I really enjoyed it. It sounds natural, with a parlato quality, and beautifully expresses both desperation and violence. Her final aria “Suicidio!” was impressive and moving. Enzo Grimaldo, Gioconda’s love interest, was Stefano La Colla, a typical Italian tenor: his voice is generous, full of squillo, exciting, solid on the high notes, while phrasing and elegance are not the best of its features. He did find some lyricism in his big aria “Cielo e mar”, which received one of the few applauses in the middle of the scene.

Erwin Schrott (Alvise)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Daniela Barcellona sang Laura Adorno, Enzo’s lover; her deep mezzo raised to some impressive high notes, which occasionally showed some strained metallic quality. Her “Stella del marinar” was moving and beautifully executed. Her duet with Erwin Schrott (Alvise Badoero, Laura’s evil husband), where he orders her to kill herself, having discovered her infidelity, was one of the highlights of the evening. Schrott pursued her physically, as she ran through the rotating, gauzed walls of their home, threatening and menacing, up and down the stairs, all as both singers sang beautifully and perfectly at tempo. Schrott put his somewhat boisterous bass to the service of this mean, sadistic old man, who enjoys showing his (allegedly) dead wife to his elegant guests, to shock them and show his power. His occasional roughness of sound perfectly suited the character, and his “Ombre di mia prosapia” was one of the most appreciated arias of the evening.

Roberto Frontali (Barnaba) and Saioa Hernández (La Gioconda)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The real bad guy in Gioconda is Barnaba, spy for the Venetian government, who lusts after Gioconda and psychologically tortures her: she will commit suicide rather than give in to him. Roberto Frontali had a rocky start, with some intonation problems which solved themselves during the course of the evening. The high notes still had some problems, but his delivery of his big monologue “O monumento” (precursor of Iago’s “Credo”) was effective, even if his voice lacked a truly evil quality. Anna Maria Chiuri was La Cieca, Gioconda’s blind mother, who Livermore sees as a mystical, almost supernatural creature. Her mezzo was deep and warm, and she gave a very good interpretation of the pious old lady.

La Gioconda at La Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

There wasn’t a good vibe at La Scala on opening night, as perceived from the orchestra seats. Lots of people talking (loudly), a phone ringing, very little applause, people zooming out before the conductor lowered his baton, at the first curtain call half of the theatre had already left. There was some substantial booing for conductor Frédéric Chaslin (in his house debut) and for the orchestra, which I did not understand, as his reading of Ponchielli's score might have been a bit on the heavy side, but for this kind of music it isn’t a mortal sin, and the orchestra sounded sumptuous, with a lavish sound and reasonable tempi. 

***11