La Gioconda, Royal Opera House, London

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Hell hath no fury like an entire cast scorned. As witness the protagonists of Ponchielli's La Gioconda. "I feel a grim sense of elation," says the arch-villain Barnaba, moments after the curtain has risen. We can relate to that. He's a spy for the Inquisition, and a balladeer to boot. He gets to sing his evil enticements. And the object of his desire - La Gioconda? Well, she's a singer, too. Which is convenient, this being opera.

Indeed, there's plenty here for all meat-eating singers to get their teeth into. Love and hate, dissemblance and death in 17th-century Venice. Grand Guignol beside the Grand Canal. This concert performance, with Antonio Pappano as music director, was a fine way for everyone to flex muscle at the beginning of the Royal Opera's new season.

It's real spit and sawdust stuff, and Pappano had assembled voices of swarthy, earthy colours. The slightly vulgar works a treat here.

So - enter the unspeakably villainous Barnaba in the person of the Romanian-born baritone Alexandru Agache, commanding and charismatic. His Iago-like credo at the Doge's Palace revelled in the snarl of retribution. His fisherman's song was good old-fashioned showing-off.

Indeed, most of this cast seized the opportunity to do a bit of that. The big notes were drawing the cheers; it's an opera for spinto (pushed, forceful) voices. The Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani, as Enzo Grimaldo, brought the house down with the aria that Caruso made famous, "Cielo e mar". But, in truth, it was really only the big-money notes that were truly impressive. Does he have it in him to finesse his singing and make the voice speak raptly in true pianissimo? I'm not sure.

But he was not alone. None of the quiet singing was very interesting. The ripe-toned American mezzo Jill Grove had her moments as La Cieca; Eric Halfvarsen bellowed cavernously as the cuckolded Alvise Badoero; and the Bulgarian mezzo, Mariana Pentcheva, did more for scorn than she did for heartache.

She and La Gioconda have a barnstorming diva duel for the love of Enzo in Act II, and that certainly went with a swing. Violetta Urmana, in the title role, is a fine singer - the best on this stage - whose exciting top never belies the fact that she made her name as a mezzo. But the plangency of the colour comes from those darker origins and tells marvellously in the lower register. But she didn't move me with the dramatic soliloquy "Suicidio!"; Callas's abiding intensity will forever linger in that number. Or maybe Urmana simply needed the dramatic context of a full staging. Now wouldn't that be a hoot.

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