A pre-veristic slice of pseudo-16th-century Venetian grand guignol - packed with secret inquisitions, adulterous assignations, blazing brigantines and deadly sexual intrigues - Gioconda is one of the legendary warhorses of the Italian spectacular school, a time-honoured vehicle for a succession of divas from Destinn and Ponselle to Milanov and Maria Callas. It has not, however, been seen in this country for over 50 years. With the help of a six-figure grant from the Peter Moores Foundation, it will be performed by Opera North.
The fact that it is now being done again is surely significant at a time when the 'Pavarotti phenomenon', far from simply promoting a wider interest in opera has in fact decisively tilted the balance in the centuries-old seesaw between la musica and le parole away from opera-as-drama in favour of the purely vocal thrills that Pavarotti so massively delivers. It is no coincidence that WNO, once a hotbed of radically re-imagined 'conceptual opera', has at last succumbed to original languages and surtitles at the same time as the now far from orderly retreat of the self-styled 'Power House' team from ENO and the rumoured threat to that company's historic commitment to vernacular opera. Ponchielli's plot may defy rational analysis, but his score works as opera, whatever language it is sung in, simply because it exploits the unmediated musical power of the human singing voice to such irrational effect. And isn't that what got most of us into opera in the first place?
That's certainly the case for Prowse. He may have spent most of his professional life, whether as designer or director, working in the theatre, but he's been going to opera for a long time too. He saw Milanov's Tosca, watched Callas's Norma, was at the first night of the legendary Visconti / Giulini Don Carlos at Covent Garden in 1958. 'I must be one of the few people alive who was actually there, and I've never forgotten it.' One thing it taught him was opera's ability to transcend the language barrier: 'I didn't understand a word of Italian but I knew enough history to work out what was going on.' But above all he recalls the sheer impact of hearing great voices - Vickers, Gobbi, Christoff, Barbieri, Brouwenstijn - belting it out across the footlights. 'Those are the things people go to the opera for. I know there are those who want to change it, who want opera to be drama. But it isn't - and, sadly for them, it always reverts.'
As for Gioconda, he has no illusions about its dramatic worth. The characters are cardboard and the situations contrived. 'Although in Gioconda herself it does have one very good role for a woman, one which has quite a lot of . . . not depth, it doesn't have that, but unexpected detours of behaviour, let's put it that way.' Which is one way of describing the sheer contrariness of a character who begins by trying to murder her rival in love and ends up not only rescuing her from death at her jealous husband's hands but sending her off into the sunset in the arms of her own errant lover. 'It's the old story of the tart with the heart of gold, I suppose - but seen from a rather sophisticated viewpoint.'
Arrigo Boito, the author of the text, was certainly a sophisticate - a skilled poet and composer, and Verdi's future collaborator on both Otello and Falstaff. But there's no doubt that, in adapting Victor Hugo's original play, he may have heightened the emotional stakes (adding a second, interlocking love-triangle) but definitely botched the joins. No wonder he insisted on publishing his text under a pseudonym.
'Ponchielli certainly comes out of it a good deal better than Tobia Gorrio or whatever he called himself,' Prowse agrees. 'It may not be great drama, but what it does have is the most wonderful succession of one kind of melodic invention after another' - with guaranteed showstoppers for each of the opera's six principals, including two - the tenor's 'Cielo e mar' and soprano's 'Suicidio]' - that are classics of the recital repertoire.
As for the language question, Prowse admits that he had originally thought of doing Gioconda in English, but happily agreed to stick to the original Italian when he realised it would get him a better calibre cast. He now has Rosalind Plowright and Sally Burgess in the rival female leads. 'Why should singers at that level be bothered to learn a new part in an English translation which they will probably never have to use again, when they can learn it in Italian and sing it again anywhere in the world?'
Such a preference for sound over significance is surprising in a theatre director. But, in Prowse's case, it comes compounded of a profound appreciation of the inherent difficulties of the singer's art - 'actors simply don't have anything to do as technically difficult as that' - and an underlying distrust of translation's ability to capture the precise literary flavour of any given text. 'When you do get a good text, such as Calzabigi's for Gluck's Orfeo, a line like 'Che puro ciel' is actually more communicative in Italian than anything you can produce in English. The imagery is intimately connected with the sound.' For him, the text is merely a springboard for the composer's imagination, while it's the music that conveys whatever the composer wants to communicate. So who needs to know what the words mean anyway? (By contrast, his next theatre piece will be an Edinburgh Festival production of Jacob Lenz's play Die Soldaten - 'in a translation, of course,' he adds slyly. 'Do put that, because it does absolutely blow the whole thing. But then, that doesn't have any music.')
Prowse's cavalier attitude to text and reverence for the score underlies his different approaches to opera and drama. 'I never respect an author in the way I respect a composer,' he explains. 'In a play, the text is where you start; in opera, the score is where you try to end up.' While he never hesitates to tamper with a play-text, an opera score remains sacrosanct.
That said, he has left out Ponchielli's famous Act 3 ballet, 'The Dance of the Hours'. 'Sadly, it's gone,' he says, with such heavy irony that it's clear that economic necessity was only partly to blame for cutting what is possibly the opera's best-known number. But won't people miss the dancing hippos? He looks blank. I explain the reference to Disney's Fantasia. 'Oh, so that's the joke,' he exclaims with relief. 'Paul Daniel (the conductor) made some remark about hippos the other evening and I just smiled back as politely as I could. I didn't know what he was talking about.' But might not the 'Dance', Disney- style, be the very reason many of the audience are there in the first place? 'Oh no, please tell me they're a better audience than that,' he implores. 'That's one of the dangerous things today - Fantasia now rates as art. I am dedicated to the death of art. No, not art - it's culture I'm against. Culture is what fucks us up.'
Opera North's 'La Gioconda' opens next Saturday in Leeds. See listings for details
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