With everything working properly, this would have been a lot of fun: Grange Park's La Gioconda reviewed

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

La Gioconda

Grange Park Opera

The Turn of the Screw

Garsington Opera

There are composers who are known for a single opera, and there are operas that are known for only a single aria. But to be a 19th-century Italian opera composer and to be remembered solely for your ballet music – well, that’s a bit special. As the orchestra tiptoed into the ‘Dance of the Hours’, in Act Three of Grange Park Opera’s production of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, the audience sighed with recognition. There were a few giggles, too. Ten minutes later, as the ballet slammed to its finish (without a note of actual – y’know – singing), they exploded into the loudest ovation we’d heard all night.

It was probably always going to happen. The choreography (Sarah Fahie was credited with ‘Movement’) was amusing: two gender-bending dancers in floaty orange frocks played out a larky courtship. It climaxed with a pillow fight and, like I say, the audience went mad for it; or at least they went mad for the only really indelible melody in the whole three-hour drama. Nothing wrong with a knockout tune, of course, and perhaps it’s just Ponchielli’s misfortune that the solitary take-home banger in La Gioconda – and arguably his whole career – is an atypical bit of decorative sparkle in what is actually a pumping, lust-driven gothic thriller set in a death-haunted Venice.

That wasn’t the only thing working against Stephen Medcalf’s production – though the most serious problem on the night that I saw it was beyond anyone’s control. La Gioconda demands charismatic singers in each of six principal roles, and it got them at Grange Park – Ruxandra Donose quivering with ardour as Laura, Elisabetta Fiorillo generating an unnerving aura around the blind, hunched figure of La Cieca, and above all, Amanda Echalaz burning up the stage as La Gioconda, a Venetian street-singer with an indomitable heart. Pale and impassioned, her voice had the flashing, blinding dazzle of a strobe light.

It was no one’s fault that Joseph Calleja, playing Enzo (the third corner of the Laura-Gioconda love triangle), had succumbed to post-Covid vocal strain. We were warned that he might only be able to ‘mark’ the part; and Calleja duly fed his ailing larynx through Ponchielli’s shredder so that the show could go on. But unavoidably, with an opera like this, everything functions at a lower wattage when the tenor lead is not at full power – a sort of musico-dramatic brownout, not helped by slightly scrappy orchestral playing (Stephen Barlow conducted).

Discount those problems, and there was an enjoyable grand guignol extravagance about Medcalf’s staging: a high-camp melodrama played out on semi-abstract sets from some Hammer-era studio soundstage. Green marble steps glinted dully; gold curtains swathed the stage and a ship’s rigging became a spider’s web, on which a black-clad (and dark-voiced) David Stout (Barnaba) lurched towards his prey while the sadistic inquisitor Alvise (Marco Spotti) cackled and swirled his cape. With everything working properly, this would have been a lot of fun – certainly enough to upstage that unsinkable ballet. Let’s hope they revive it in a future season.

Meanwhile, credit to Grange Park Opera for presenting La Gioconda in the first place, and for giving us Janacek’s Mr Broucek last month. The traditional swipes at the gussied-up, picnic-munching audiences who attend summer opera festivals overlook one crucial point. When you can rely upon a critical mass of ticket-buyers who are simply along for the ride (or at any rate, for the poached salmon and Bolly), you can afford to take artistic risks. It’s a lesson that orchestras learned the hard way when their historic subscription base evaporated a couple of decades ago. Summer opera companies have created a workable alternative in almost the same time. Let ’em drink fizz, if their presence means that aficionados get to hear The Wreckers, Die Tote Stadt or Margot la Rouge.

Or, indeed, revivals of the quality of Louisa Muller’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. My colleague Alexandra Coghlan was very impressed by its first outing in 2019, and while the cast has changed, the overall impact is still compelling – whether the atmospheric set (no door in Bluebeard’s castle ever swung open with quite such semi-sentient menace) or lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth’s ongoing game of wits with the fading daylight that streams through the sides of Garsington’s glass-sided theatre. Mark Wigglesworth draws sinister bird cries from the Philharmonia Orchestra, the children (Maia Greaves and Ben Fletcher) are self-possessed without a hint of preciousness, Helena Dix (Miss Jessel) oozes on stage like some monstrous fungus and Verity Wingate, as the Governess, sings and smiles with sunlit, chiming sweetness. Until, that is, we get to the end of Act One and we’re shown – with chilling directness – that she really has nothing to smile about, at all.

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