A pleasant Italian outing

<i>La Gioconda</i> | Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture

They have been dark rumours recently that English National Opera might be contemplating a change in its policy of singing in English. The company's general director, Nicholas Payne, has all but said "over my dead body", while at the same time allowing the possibility of occasions when singing in the original language might be appropriate. Thus, two concert performances of Ponchielli's La Gioconda, sung in Italian as part of the ENO's Italian Season.

They have been dark rumours recently that English National Opera might be contemplating a change in its policy of singing in English. The company's general director, Nicholas Payne, has all but said "over my dead body", while at the same time allowing the possibility of occasions when singing in the original language might be appropriate. Thus, two concert performances of Ponchielli's La Gioconda, sung in Italian as part of the ENO's Italian Season.

La Gioconda is an opera that many people would prefer to listen to than to watch. Its most famous passage is "The Dance of the Hours", which has no dramatic relevance whatsoever, and its titular heroine makes Puccini's Tosca seem bright. No matter: Ponchielli's score provides a significant stepping- stone between Verdi and Puccini, and if the drama is emotionally congested, preeningly pious, the music is hard to resist, at least in a performance of such palpable dramatic commitment.

The ENO orchestra, permitted for once to emerge from its subterranean lair, was given its head by conductor Paul Daniel, who at no time allowed the tension to sag. Moments that lacked finesse counted for little, and the big climaxes had the power to sweep aside all resistance.

The singers, meanwhile, were wholly inside the music, and to a large extent inside their roles, even if they were singing from scores. Peter Sidhom's Barnaba, a frightening amalgam of Verdi's Iago and Puccini's Scarpia, was matched in malevolence by the Alvise of Alastair Miles. As la Gioconda and Enzo, lovers at cross-purposes, both Jane Eaglen and Dennis O'Neill struggled at moments of duress, but they had the resources to deliver the idiom, which sometimes counts more than the notes. Concert performances in Italian may not be what the Coliseum is for, but on this occasion, no one was complaining.

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