La Gioconda, Salzburg Easter Festival, review: Anna Netrebko is past her best, but Pappano thrills

Anna Netrebko,  Tareq Nazm and chorus in La Gioconda, at Salzburg Easter Festival
Anna Netrebko, Tareq Nazm and chorus in La Gioconda, at Salzburg Easter Festival - Bernd Uhlig
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Hampered by a stately pace and knotty plot, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda needs a lot of help before its finer qualities can surface. Without a clutch of golden-throated singers and a conductor who can sustain dramatic tension through four substantial acts – left alone a director who can untangle the intrigue and motivation of its characters – a very grand opera risks sinking under the weight of its own pretensions.

This lavish performance, due at some point to transfer to Covent Garden, is probably as good as it’s ever going to get. Composed in the mid 1870s, La Gioconda bridges the worlds and styles of Verdi and Puccini. Gioconda is a street singer in Renaissance Venice. She is secretly in love with the disguised aristocrat Enzo, who is secretly in love with the virtuous married Laura. The evil snitch Barnaba lusts after Gioconda; Laura’s husband Alvise is fumingly jealous. Fiery and violent melodrama ensues from so much hugger-mugger, culminating in Barnaba’s murder of Gioconda’s blind mother.

Not many laughs along the way, as you may have guessed, but the strong-hearted will be rewarded with plenty of impassioned arias and thrillingly confrontational duets, as well as a couple of spine-tingling choral climaxes and the “Dance of the Hours” balletic interlude that featured in Disney’s Fantasia. Rich pickings, in other words.

The triumph of the evening is undoubtedly Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He brings to the well-stuffed score terrific swagger and brilliance, without losing any of its intense lyricism. Marvellously silken playing from the strings is a great asset: the lushness never turns soggy. The two leads, Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann are both a little past their vocal prime, alas. Netrebko tends to belt it out at the expense of pitch, and raw patches emerge in taxing phrases, though she also pulls out some magically expressive moments in the final act; Kaufmann sounds noble but effortful. They are ably supported by Luca Salsi (Barnaba), Eva-Maud Hubeaux (Laura), Tareq Nazmi (Alvise) and an enormous chorus drawn from several sources.

Oliver Mears has the unenviable task of tracking a path through the twists and turns of the scenario. His handsomely designed staging keeps the location in Venice but updates the Renaissance to the present day – a practice that creates more problems of plausibility than it solves, not least when Kaufmann’s Enzo appears in a yacht-club blazer and jaunty cap reminiscent of Tony Curtis’s in Some Like it Hot.

Anna Netrebko in La Gioconda at Salzburg Easter Festival
Anna Netrebko in La Gioconda at Salzburg Easter Festival - Bernd Uhlig

The chorus’s movements are rigidly choreographed; the principals are left to move rather aimlessly on the Grosses Festspielhaus’s vast stage and resort to conventional operatic ham. Only Netrebko looks at ease: she clearly enjoys playing Gioconda as a big-hearted, bare-footed Sophia Loren type who has been trafficked into the sex trade and knows how to make feminine charm work to her advantage. The staid Salzburg audience went wild for her, and she has now distanced herself from her prior allegiance to Putin and proclaimed abhorrence of the war against Ukraine. Will London be welcoming her back soon?

Festival runs until April 1;

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