In the end, there were no hippos in tutus. A ballet fantasy. Instead, The Dance of the Hours – easily the best known music in La Gioconda – was given a witty interpretation, choreographed by Sarah Fahie with rather more invention than anything director Stephen Medcalf allows himself in his broadly traditional production for Grange Park Opera. Postponed due to the pandemic from 2020 – the “lost season” – Ponchielli’s opera finally hit the stage of the idyllic Theatre in the Woods with a different conductor and just one major change of cast. 

The Dance of the Hours
© Marc Brenner

Wasfi Kani, GPO’s formidable founder and CEO, likes to aim high and her casting reaches for the stars… and deep into her pockets. This season boasts Sir Bryn Terfel singing Wagner’s Dutchman, Sir Simon Keenlyside singing Iago for the first time and here, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja making his role debut as Enzo. It’s gold-plated casting that other country house opera festivals don’t match (this season, at least). 

Joseph Calleja (Enzo) and Amanda Echalaz (Gioconda)
© Marc Brenner

If you thought the plot of Il trovatore was crazy, La Gioconda gives it a serious run for its money. It’s best not to take the plot too seriously. Enzo, a Genoese prince in disguise as a sailor, is caught in a love triangle with the street singer of the opera’s title and his ex, Laura, who is now married to Alvise, leader of the Venetian Inquisition. Barnaba, the Inquisition’s all-powerful spy, lusts after Gioconda and schemes to lure her into his clutches. When Alvise discovers his wife’s deceit and instructs her to drink poison, Gioconda turns up, having predicted such a turn of events, with a handy potion that will feign Laura’s death instead. 

Ruxandra Donose (Laura) and Amanda Echalaz (Gioconda)
© Marc Brenner

Medcalf makes no excuses for such silliness but allows the cast to run with it. Barnaba is a leering panto villain, and when Gioconda reveals to Enzo that she had Laura’s lifeless body removed from the tomb and he accuses her of lying – while Laura’s body is clearly in view – I was just waiting for someone to shout “She’s behind you!”. 

David Stout (Barnaba)
© Marc Brenner

Designer Francis O’Connor only gives us a glimpse of Venice – a wall of carved faces including a bocca di leone in which Barnaba posts his anonymous denunciation, revealing Laura’s plan to elope with Enzo. Otherwise, a simple flight of green marble steps parts to reveal the portholes of Enzo’s ship, metal ropes indicating rigging which then expands to become the spider’s web which represents Barnaba's trapping of Gioconda. Alvise’s palace, the Ca' d'Oro, is blingtastic with gold curtains and scatter cushions that are used in a pillow fight stretta to the ballet. In the only twist on the libretto, Medcalf turns Barnaba’s last snarl – of frustration that Gioconda has cheated him of his prize by taking poison herself – into a cry of anguish as she stabs him in the back. 

Grange Park Opera Chorus
© Marc Brenner

So, it’s not a subtle piece, but it’s best just to embrace it and revel in Ponchielli’s pretty glorious music, which was in most respects well sung even if Stephen Barlow’s conducting was pedestrian to the point of inertia. Amanda Echalaz has exactly the right sort of soprano for the title role, a vibrant, punchy sound, if occasionally a bit wild. Her “Suicidio!” aria was terrific – Act 4 saw most of the cast upping their game – and she commanded the stage with authority. Elisabetta Fiorillo vividly dug into her contralto depths as La Cieca, Gioconda’s blind mother, and Ruxandra Donose scored another GPO hit with her gorgeously sung Laura; “Stella del marinar”, her prayer for protection as she’s about to elope, was a particular highlight. 

Ruxandra Donose (Laura)
© Marc Brenner

On the male side, Calleja’s golden tonsils glowed in much of “Cielo e mar”, although the top B flat and A flats caused problems (it was announced that he had recently recovered from Covid). David Stout’s imposing baritone made an impression as the villainous Barnaba, and only Marco Spotti’s Alvise, with serious intonation problems, was a disappointment. I’ve heard him sing much better. The young Grange Park Opera Chorus sang lustily though and it was good to wallow in this insane, but fun score. Even without the hippos, the hours danced by.