OPERA / Intimate apparel: Julian Rushton on Opera North's production of La Gioconda in Leeds

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The Independent Culture
Amilcare Ponchielli's work survives in the theatre thanks only to La Gioconda. This epitome of grand melodrama is receiving its first professional production in Britain for many years thanks to sponsorship by the Peter Moores Foundation. Opera North has wisely suppressed the popular but intrusive ballet; but it was a pity that the demands of Philip Prowse's set held up the action by a second interval after Act 3. What we saw next, however, was worth waiting for.

Here, as with his Aida, Prowse successfully presents a panorama of grandeur and savagery within a relatively confined stage. The excellent costumes evoke the period of composition (1876) rather than the setting (17th-century), permitting a sharp contrast between classes and between formality and revelry, and thus clarifying the notoriously complicated plot.

The first act is effective in itself - for the Venetian carnival, stage and chorus are festooned with ribbons against a black background - but the miracle is its transformation to the moonlit lagoon for Act 2. With disarming simplicity, Act 3 shows a large room furnished only with chairs and lanterns; this sets off the claustrophobic intimacy of Act 4: two dressing tables, a domed vault supporting purple drapery which sweeps down to a bed. It is here that the last scene of self-sacrifice, intended murder, rape, and suicide is played out.

With Opera North a strong all- round performance is to be expected, and the considerable demands on chorus and orchestra were amply met under Oliver von Dohnanyi. But La Gioconda is an opera for great voices, and what made this first night such an event, deserving its ecstatic reception, was that after extended rehearsal the singers all peaked at the right time, without a hint of a tired throat.

The opera could be named after any of its four great roles. The tyrannical husband may be reduced to an aria and two scenes, but the part was impressively handled by Clifford Grant. As his moral opposite, the blind mother, Catherine Wyn-Rogers coloured the first act with pious dignity. Keith Latham as the spy Barnaba was in tremendous voice and his domination of the first act was a histrionic masterpiece. Sally Burgess did her best with the mezzo- soprano Laura, gloriously defiant in proclaiming her love for Enzo, then strangely passive; would a Venetian lady obey her husband to the point of committing suicide? As her lover Enzo, Edmund Barham impressed mightily with his ringing heroic tenor and powerful figure, disguising the character's ineffectuality and selfishness as he jilted Gioconda for Laura.

But the opera is rightly named for the self-sacrificing La Gioconda, the ballad singer who sings no ballads but is a great dramatic soprano role. Although hers is not perhaps the warmest of voices, Rosalind Plowright rises to every challenge and, in the context of this particularly intelligent production, acts magnificently. The transformation from the melodramatic 'Suicidio' to coquettish flirtation as she holds off Barnaba long enough to take poison, is a measure of her vocal range and theatrical command. As a regeneration of a historic piece of music theatre this production should not be missed.

Continues in repertory at the Leeds Grand Theatre (Box office: 0532 459351); then tours to the Opera House, Manchester; Theatre Royal, Nottingham; New Theatre, Hull and Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield