Visually Imposing: La Gioconda at the Teatro alla Scala

Ponchielli – La Gioconda

La Gioconda – Irina Churilova
Laura Adorno – Daniela Barcellona
Alvise Badoero – Erwin Schrott
La Cieca – Anna Maria Chiuri
Enzo Grimaldo – Stefano La Colla
Barnaba – Roberto Frontali
Zu
àne – Fabrizio Beggi
Un cantore/Un pilota – Ernesto José Morillo Hoyt
Is
èpo – Francesco Pittari
Un barnabotto – Alessandro Senes

Allievi della Scuola di Ballo dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Coro di Voci Bianche del Teatro alla Scala, Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Frédéric Chaslin.
Stage director – Davide Livermore

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Saturday, June 18th, 2022.

As we all know, the Teatro alla Scala is one of the most iconic of opera houses, a place full of history and a notoriously tricky audience.  It’s also the place where La Gioconda was premiered, 146 years ago, and this is a work the house has in its bones.  Of course, the house is a major attraction for visitors to Milan and it’s clear that the tourist season is in full swing – with a number of audience members taking photos during the show, or talking non-stop.  I must admit any annoyance I had at the chattiness of the people sitting behind me was slightly tempered by the fact that the referred to the titular character in a very heavy Brooklyn accent, which was quite heady.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

This new production was confided to Davide Livermore.  Following the withdrawal of both Sonya Yoncheva and Fabio Sartori from their respective roles, the house engaged Stefano La Colla to sing Enzo, while Gioconda was taken by Saioa Hernández (pictured) and Irina Churilova, who sang tonight.  Livermore’s staging gave a lot to look at, not least in Act 2, with a very imposing ship that took up two-thirds of the height of the proscenium.  The sets (Giò Forma) were enhanced with video projections by D-WOK that added additional visual interest.  These included images of water, or stained-glass windows, or indeed flames taking over said ship.  While undoubtedly visually impressive, what it also suggested was a reluctance by Livermore to use his singers to drive the action forward.  Far too often, singers would be planted at the front to gesticulate into the middle-distance while various bits of film was projected, or the set would move, or actors would perambulate around, thereby drawing attention away from the principals and restricting them from telling their own stories.  For instance, during ‘cielo e mar’, the sails of the ship descended from the flies and video was projected, while La Colla’s Enzo sang to the front and gesticulated into the audience.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Similarly, the chorus was planted on the stage as a group while action took place around them.  That said, there were a few moments when they randomly gyrated, but this was intermittent.  From time to time, we saw figures that presumably had symbolic value come to life – an angel descending from the flies, or the figure on the bow of Enzo’s ship descending and walking around with a ball of light during the confrontation between Gioconda and Laura in Act 2, again drawing attention away from the principals at the moment when dramatic energy should be at its peak.  During the Act 4 confrontation between Alvise and Laura, the set rotated around as they chased each other through their palazzo.  The effect was visually impressive but it felt that this was done to the detriment of character development.  Interestingly, my Brooklyn neighbours had a very interesting discussion at curtain call expressing admiration at the visuals, but bafflement at who was who in the story and confusion at what the narrative was.  This is actually a pretty accurate summary of Livermore’s staging – it looks great (and expensive) but doesn’t always allow for character development or storytelling.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Perhaps as a result of this, the cast also didn’t always impose itself on the evening.  This could partly be due to Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting.  He led a Scala orchestra on magnificent form, once again proving that this is a band that really is at its peak currently.  The sheer cantabile nature of those long aching string lines was articulated with a beauty of phrasing that seemed to reflect the beauty of the human voice.  The brass was sensational throughout.  And yet his conducting felt pedestrian and lacking in energy, despite the undoubted pulchritude of the orchestral playing.  That said, he did come to life in the ballet music, which was played with a rhythmic incisiveness and sense of theatre lacking elsewhere.  Alberto Malazzi’s chorus was on stirring form, singing with an impressive blend of tone and filling the house in a golden glow of sound.  Listening to this orchestra and chorus, one was acutely aware of the great sense of tradition in the house and their unanimity of approach, despite the rather placid conducting.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Churilova is an interesting singer.  Her soprano is bold with an innate steeliness, although it doesn’t quite spin at the very highest reaches.  She was extremely committed, but it felt through most of the evening that the chalky tone lacked a variety of tone colours to give her singing true individuality.  She clearly has a well-schooled technique and understands the shape of the music and how to phrase it with love.  The voice is rather bottom-light though and lacking in that gutsy chestiness that would make her assumption even more memorable.  That said, she went for it in the final act, giving us a ‘suicidio’ that was sung with a larger range of tonal variety and textual awareness that wasn’t always apparent elsewhere.  It was warmly received by the Scala audience.  Churilova is certainly a useful artist. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Daniela Barcellona sang Laura with her customary silky mezzo and textual awareness.  She opened up nicely on top, singing with an impressive freedom up there, while managing to turn the corners with ease and singing with an impressively smooth legato.  The Act 2 confrontation between Gioconda and Laura was vocally impressive, but sadly overshadowed by the set and extraneous action.  Anna Maria Chiuri sang La Cieca with a beautifully rounded contralto, negotiating the passaggio expertly, the registers ideally integrated. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

La Colla shaded the tone most beautifully in his ‘cielo e mar’.  His is an attractive tenor though perhaps on the small side for the role in this house.  He had a tendency to sing sharp, the tone pressured to create more amplitude.  That said, his textual awareness and his willingness to savour the tone and pull back on the dynamics gave much pleasure.  Roberto Frontali gave us a superb Barnaba – full of aristocratic menace.  The voice is so firm, vibrations even, although the tone at the very top did have a tendency to discolour somewhat.  Still, his ability to incarnate his character and find both malice and swagger in the tone were seriously impressive.  Erwin Schrott held the stage with notable presence as Alvise.  His bass now sounds rather dry, although he is still capable of considerable amplitude.  He also made much of the text.  The remaining smaller roles reflected the quality one would expect at this address.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

This was a somewhat mixed evening in the theatre.  The staging was undoubtedly visually impressive and gave much to look at, but this was achieved to the detriment of using the principals to drive the story forward.  Similarly, the conducting made much of the fabled tradition of the house and allowed the orchestra and chorus to work their magic, but similarly lacked dynamism and forward momentum – although the ballet music was notably different.  The principals all brought a number of positive elements to their work, with Frontali particularly impressive.  The evening was greeted with a polite reception and some ‘bravo’s by the Scala audience.     

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