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Ponchielli – La Gioconda


La Gioconda – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers

Laura Adorno – Yvonne Howard

Alvise Badoero – David Soar

La Cieca – Nuala Willis

Enzo Grimaldi – Vadim Zaplechny

Barnaba – Olafur Sigurdarson

Zuane – Charles Johnston

Isepo – Aled Hall

Un Barnabotto – Benedict Nelson


Conductor – Peter Robinson

Director – Martin Lloyd-Evans

Designer – Jamie Vartan

Choreographer – Regina Wielingen

Lighting – Simon Corder

Opera Holland Park

30 July 2008


I’ve always regarded La Gioconda as something of an endangered species amongst operas: its sheer scale makes it ill adapted for survival in the modern world and extinction threatens.  Although it is still indigenous to Italy, only very sporadic sightings are reported elsewhere, and most opera lovers have to make do with experiencing it through recordings.


Thanks to the audacity of OHP this rare spectacle is now on show in Holland Park. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat tamed version with the lavish settings compressed by Jamie Vartan into a single structure that bears rather more resemblance to a multi-storey car park than seventeenth century Venice.  But the big ensemble is there, indeed the chorus is the real hero of the singing stakes, and under the careful guidance of Peter Robinson the orchestra play superbly, doing full justice to Ponchielli’s sumptuous score.


The demands made on the singers are considerable, and ideally six voices of world class stature are required.  On this particular evening, Yvonne Howard (Laura) was the only singer to demonstrate these credentials to the full, but the general standard was very high.  


An apology had been made before the curtain for David Soar.  By all accounts he had been outstanding in earlier performances, but on this morning had been scarcely able to speak let alone sing.   OHP, who do not field understudies, had been unable to locate a substitute, and were fortunate that David Soar felt well enough by the evening to appear.  His portrayal of the merciless Alvise was one of considerable dramatic stature, and despite everything he was able to show enough to indicate what a well-finished voice he possesses.    These incidents naturally build tension for the other performers, and once Alvise had got safely through his big Act 3 confrontation with Laura, the show settled and started to reveal its full glory.


In the title role, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (pictured) was one who gained strength as the opera progressed to triumph with Suicidio!.  She has a very distinctive voice, strong in the lower register and able to produce some really thrilling tone, but there were moments when a little more control was needed. 


Vadim Zaplechny (Enzo), whom I last heard singing Tchaikovsky’s Herman for Helikon Opera, produced a nice Italianate sound, but his showpiece aria, Cielo e mar somehow failed to make the impression one would expect.   Olafur Sigurdarson never sounded comfortable as the despicable spy Barnaba, forcing his voice. Nuala Willis painted an effective picture of the elderly, blind La Cieca.


The smaller parts were all strongly cast.  OHP regulars Aled Hall and Charles Johnston extracted every ounce from their roles, and new-comer Benedict Nelson made a strong impression.


Martin Lloyd-Evans has had a good string of successes for OHP and his directing is as deft as ever. He bridged the long narrow letter-box like stage, with some very nice placements of the chorus, with ropes, line-ups of shoes, gloved hands and masks.   


Last, and I’m afraid least, there is that ballet which simply cannot be discretely dropped as its music, The Dance of the Hours, remains the best known tune in the opera.     With four dancers at her disposal, choreographer Regina Wielingen had come up with a pleasant enough but distinctly contemporary dance sequence, totally at variance with the period of the plot and breaking the theatrical spell.  


Perhaps the creature turned out to have a few more warts than I expected, but I have waited many years for a sight of this rarity and went home happy in the achievement.


Serena Fenwick