La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli, set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito, after Victor Hugo's play "Angelo, Tyran de Padoue"
premiered at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 8 April, 1876

Performance of Thursday, 6 February, 2014 (sung in Italian with German supertitles)

Conductor: Jesus Lopez Cobos
Director and Costumes: Filippo Sanjust
Set Design: Scenografia Camillo Parravicini, Rome
Lighting: Gerlinde Pelkowski
Choreography: William Spaulding
Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin


Cast:

La Gioconda: Hui He
La Cieca, her Mother: Dana Beth Miller
State Inquisitor: Ante Jerkunica
Laura: Marianne Cornetti
Enzo Grimaldo: Marcelo Alvarez
Barnaba: Lado Ataneli
Zuane: Ben Wager
Helmsman: Noel Bouley
Singer: Ben Wager
Isepo: Gideon Poppe

The friend who had been accompanying me to the operas in Berlin wasn't able to attend, so I had an extra ticket to deal with. I called the opera house box office a couple of days before the performance, who told me that the performance was completely sold out, so I likely would be able to sell the ticket without a problem. After picking up the tickets at the box office, I gamely went outside to see what I could do, and noticed another person out front with a single ticket. Within a minute, a couple walked up to her, and I overheard that she had only one ticket to sell, so I jumped in to offer my single ticket (I was a little worried since it was on the pricey side at about Euro 95). The couple didn't bat an eye, and bought both tickets. I sat next to the wife of the buyer, who didn't speak much English, and joined her and her husband during the intermissions. Very nice people who were very good company - he was a retired professor of business and had taught for a semester at the University of Illinois/Champaign (he spoke English).

I have to admit that I caught off-guard by this highly traditional production which now is exactly 40 years old, having premiered 1 March, 1974. I had the impression of the Deutsche Oper as a company favoring Regie productions. This La Gioconda most certainly is not that, with sets that I would term "plywood baroque". Everything was painted pasteboard or plywood with some antique looking furniture on stage. Also interesting is that this is the first opera I've ever been to with 3 intermissions. Germans love intermissions, ordering small sandwiches/canapes, beer, champagne at each opportunity from a series of caterers on each floor (sometimes 2 caterers per floor). In fact, each of the opera houses I've been to in Berlin and Munich have very serious catering outfits!

I had never heard La Gioconda beforehand, so knew nothing about the opera when I sat down (except for the ballet and what I knew from the synopsis). The opera house is fairly large with tiered seating and excellent sight lines - and is very modern (dating to the 1960s, I believe). The stage itself is built really quite low - there is very little stage height above the orchestra pit, which created a very intimate sense of the action (I was seated in the 6th row).

The performance:

Since I saw La Gioconda a couple of weeks ago, I don't recall enough to provide a specific act-by-act breakout. Jesus Lopez Cobos conducted an impressive reading of the overture to start. From the outset, almost all of the singing was strictly 'park and bark', with little acting of note. When a singer had a solo aria, other singers would leave the set, and the singer would approach the apron of the stage with a spotlight. Been a while since I've seen that!

Singing during the first act, I thought, was really off. Hui He's Gioconda was, in my view, the only singer in the first act who sang well and without strain. Dana Beth Miller's La Cieca (Gioconda's blind mother) opened with a wide vibrato - almost a wobble, that was off-putting. Both Barnaba and the State Inquisitor were pretty good, but the tenor, Mr. Alvarez, was shouty and seemed to struggle to hit the higher notes.

As we got to Act II, the singers seemed to have warmed up considerably, and the performance evened out - except for Mr. Alvarez. His Cielo e mar was painful to listen to, though the audience went nuts - so maybe it was just me. On the other hand, about half the audience seemed to be there specifically for the Dance of the Hours ballet, so maybe they weren't very knowledgeable about what they were hearing. The ballet was strictly classical (to be expected, I suppose, considering the music), with dancers in tutus and on-pointe - and audience members 'brava-ing the dancers. Classical ballet doesn't ring my bells, but their rendition of 'Dance of the Hours' was perfectly pleasant (wouldn't want to do it every day, tho').

Hui He did a nice job with Suicidio!, and the opera ended shortly after that. I came away without a very strong sense of the opera and not a whole lot of appreciation for its music.

Maybe it's time for Deutsche Oper to come up with a nice Regie production of La Gioconda!