At La Scala, ‘La Gioconda’ prepares to travel back in time

“La Gioconda”, by Amilcare Ponchielli, established the composer as a creator of operas on par with Verdi after its premiere in 1876 at La Scala in Milan. However, while isolated numbers like the “Dance of the Hours” and the aria “Cielo e mar” (“The Sky and the Sea”) have acquired lasting notoriety, the lyrical drama in four acts only occasionally receives new ones. productions.

This month, La Scala is putting on one by Davide Livermore, an Italian director. The last performances of “La Gioconda” at home were in 1997, in a revival of Nicola Benois’ 1950s staging, which had only starred Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano.

Sopranos Saioa Hernández and Irina Churilova will reprise performances as lead character Sonya Yoncheva, who contracted the flu during rehearsals. The cast, under the baton of Frédéric Chaslin, also includes Daniela Barcellona as Laura, Anna Maria Chiuri as La Cieca and Roberto Frontali as Barnaba.

Arrigo Boito’s libretto, freely inspired by Victor Hugo’s play “Angélo, Tyrant de Padoue”, takes place in 17th century Venice. La Gioconda, a ballad singer, rebuffs the advances of Barnaba, a spy for the Venetian State Inquisition. She is in love with a noble Genoese, Enzo, disguised as a ship’s captain; he in turn loves Laura, who was forced to marry a leader of the Inquisition. After saving Laura’s life and allowing her to escape with Enzo, La Gioconda stabs herself to death; Barnaba bends over his body and shouts that he drowned his mother, La Cieca.

In Mr. Livermore’s staging, Venice becomes a dreamscape where ghosts roam along the lagoon. The city can vanish at any moment, recreating both the sensory perceptions of La Cieca, who is blind, and the fog that frequently shrouds its buildings. Inspirations for the sets, by Mr. Livermore’s production team, Giò Forma, include the French cartoonist known as Moebius — in particular his book “Venise Celeste” — and Fellini’s film “Casanova”.

Mr. Livermore stressed the importance of putting on operas that helped shape national values ​​in the aftermath of Italian unification In the 19th century. “It was a time when art educated society about solidarity, loyalty,” he said. Today, he continues, “it’s up to the director to show society things it doesn’t see”.

He sees La Cieca as a “deeply mystical” character who is stigmatized in the same way that crowds “hate” on social media. In this reading, when Barnaba and her constituents assert that she can see despite her blindness and declare her a witch, they are in fact expressing fear of her spiritual powers.

Mr. Livermore highlights librettist Boito’s genius for capturing a full range of human emotions in three hours of opera. “It could make for a great TV series,” he said via video conference from Milan. “Boito wanted to talk about love, sex, hate, betrayal, the desire for revenge – heaven.”

Boito wrote under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio as a member of the Scapigliatura, an anti-bourgeois movement of artists and intellectuals in 1860s Milan. Livermore calls the group “the true avant-garde of its time”, highlighting moments in the opera that shock audiences in thriller style .

Mr. Chaslin, the conductor of the production at La Scala, believes that “La Gioconda” drew essential impulses from Verdi while opening the door to his later operas, “otelloand “Falstaff”, for which Boito provided the librettos (he also took part in the revision of “Simon Boccanegra”). Verdi had stopped producing operas for 16 years after the 1871 premiere of “Aida”.

For Mr. Livermore and Mr. Chaslin, the sinister character of Barnaba is a kind of prototype for Iago, the scheming officer of Otello. Further down the line, “La Gioconda” was an important stepping stone to the “verism» operas at the turn of the 20th century – of which Puccini, a pupil of Ponchielli, is the best known representative.

Mr. Chaslin draws a parallel between the main characters of “La Gioconda” and “Tosca», the two stories « of a woman who would rather die than give in to a man who wants to own her ». He also points to modern elements in Ponchielli’s score such as Barnaba’s final utterance: Rather than singing a high note, according to convention, he exclaims “Ah! in what is denoted in the libretto as a “muffled scream,” as the orchestra races with a soaring chromatic scale to the chilling end.

The composer’s vocal writing is a tour de force for the soloists. Mr. Chaslin calls this a “vicious cycle” since opera is not performed regularly, it requires singers who are both fit for the task and willing to invest time in learning the music.

The opera also requires choristers ranging from monks to shipbuilders (La Scala’s production includes a choir of over 120). Mr. Chaslin noted the “gigantic” proportion of the ensemble numbers, particularly the third-act finale, which comes just after the “Dance of the hours.”

“La Gioconda” is in fact the only opera-ballo (or opera with dance, more or less in the vein of grand opera tradition) in addition to “Aïda” to remain in the repertoire. The score will be performed in its entirety, as is tradition at La Scala.

Mariana Fracasso’s costumes travel freely through the centuries. Barnaba and his assassins evoke both the character of the commedia dell’arte ladybird (a burlesque figure who wears loose white clothes and a large white hat), as depicted by 18th century Venetian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and the killers in Stanley Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange”.

In the meantime, the theme of Inquisition will be stripped of all allusions to the Roman Catholic Church and will instead be portrayed as a secretive and oppressive power. In this reading, the La Cieca rosary that is passed to Laura is only a symbol of mystical spirituality.

The final scene is inspired by the horror film “The Others” by Alejandro Amenabar. “We find that Barnaba is the only one still alive,” Mr Livermore said. “And he still desires blood and sex in a horrible way.”

After La Gioconda kills herself, her spirit reunites with La Cieca. And it, Mr Livermore said, “will probably hang over the lagoon of Venice for eternity”.

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