Gioconda is a piece we know but never see. This is the first professional staging in Britain for more than 50 years. Enthusiasts track it down in Verona or at the New York Met where it remains in repertory - a testament to local taste and the ability to offer lavish spectacle, which is the raison d'etre of the piece. Without great voices, grand scenes and a gaudy budget, it is nothing but the product of a crisis in Italian opera, written in the empty space between Aida and Otello when it looked as if there would be no more from Verdi and no one to succeed him. Puccini and Mascagni were still teenagers. Ponchielli was prolific but small meat.
In Gioconda, though, he siezed his moment with a score that judged the mood of the time, marrying well-worn Italian routines to the Meyerbeerian scale of French grand opera. Melodically ingratiating, it depends on set pieces whose content serves the overall structure rather than any nicety of logic, and characters who do things for no other reason than to make a striking tableau. The plot, a farrago of politico-amorous intrigue amid a 17th-century Venetian carnival, is of interest only in that it resolves onto a template for Tosca (self- sacrificing singer outwits lascivious secret policeman to save the man she really loves). Almost every number is climactic at a level that would be appropriate once or twice during one act but tests endurance in such quantity.
What, then, can you expect of this Veronese monster from a thrifty company in Leeds? Not much. Ponchielli's best-known number, the Dance of Hours (aka the hippopotamus dance in Fantasia) is cut, as is much of Act II. The spectacle of 17th-century Venice en fete has been darkened into 19th-century verismo, which makes the plot seem even shabbier and distinctly un-Venetian. Act I could be the Thames Embankment on VE Night.
The voices have the notes, sometimes impressively, but not the glamour. Rosalind Plowright handles the gaping tessitura of the title role with strength at both ends and agreeably dark timbre at the bottom; but she doesn't really shine. Nor does Edmund Barham, who has the stage charisma of a bath sponge. The best performances come from the seconda donna Sally Burgess and the villain Keith Latham, but none of them believe a word of what they sing about, and the production doesn't encourage commitment. Most of the character interaction is of the Let-me-get- my-wig-out-of-the-way-before- you-slit-my-throat variety. One solution might have been to abandon the whole thing to high camp, but Philip Prowse clearly wasn't prepared to take that risk.
I felt sorry for Oliver von Dohnanyi, the visiting Czech conductor saddled with this loser - what he did was accomplished - and sorry, too, for Opera North which rightly assumed that in Gioconda we need to know what we are missing. My own curiosity is now quite satisfied. Once in 50 years is probably enough.
The South Bank has been doing deals again: this time with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, henceforth to be the South Bank's 'Associate Orchestra'. The arrangement doesn't mean much: a minimum of five concerts a season, which is less than the orchestra gives already at the QEH. But it formalises the current relationship, and signals the fact that this orchestra is now in the front rank of period performance bands. Strong on identity and self-governance, it has no resident conductor but engages who it wants, concert by concert. For its first appearance in Associate status on Wednesday it took the unusual decision of engaging Heinrich Schiff, a conductor not known for period performance.
Schiff is a conspicuously musical musician who always delivers quality, but this was something else: an all-Beethoven programme that out-Norrington'd Norrington in vigour, interest and articulated joy. Driven (but not pummelled) by a muscular beat that sculpted strong and sharply punctuated phrasing, it offered a 4th Piano Concerto (soloist Alexei Lubimov) and Eroica Symphony that the most distinguished Beethovenian, period or otherwise, would have been proud of. The speed of the Eroica finale was disconcerting but completely, irrefutably convincing.
Thursday was a good night, too, when Sir Georg Solti conducted the LSO in a programme which had just been on tour in Europe and was accordingly well- oiled: Stravinsky and Bruckner, glistening with a richness of sound and brilliance of brass attack that no other British orchestra could quite match at the moment. Solti isn't an especially spiritual Brucknerian - there were missing moments of transcendence - but he is magnificent in his control of the score's proportions. At 81 he
is beginning to look frail, but no less fiery.
The ideal composer to turn Tennessee Williams's screenplay Baby Doll into opera would, I think, be an American Janacek; and Andrew Poppy comes near to it in the best moments of his attempt, commissioned by the National Theatre as part of a series of new studio works called Springboards. It had its premiere on Thursday at the Cottesloe, scored for three singers and five instruments. It is strong on atmosphere (a lot of sultry Southern blue notes) and punchily abbreviated in its story-telling. Sometimes. The problem is that just where the pace should be accelerating, at the story's climax, is where it slows down. And it's performed by singers who need more direction. But it is interesting that the piece should be here at the National at all, part of a project which is otherwise entirely straight theatre. The point, I suppose, is that opera needs no special pleading: that in the late 20th century we're grown up enough to take it on the same terms as any other performance art. But it doesn't follow that opera can work on the same terms as ordinary theatre. The assumption that it can is perhaps why this Baby Doll comes ragged at the edges.
'Gioconda' continues Tues & Fri (0532 459351).
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