Sunday, August 22, 2010

Son la Gioconda!

William Berger, in his entertaining Puccini Without Excuses, quipped that "there seem to be more exclamation points in the libretto of La Gioconda than in all other libretti combined."  Hyperbole, but he has a point: many of the exchanges in this fraught drama appear to consist almost entirely of impassioned outbursts.  (Exclamation-ridden libretto (by Arrigo Boito, no less!) here, Wikipedia synopsis of the wild plot here.)  The friend whom I met in the Rush Tickets line is currently singing Enzo, so with his inspiration and with his help finding recordings and a full score, I've spent some time working on connecting with and appreciating this work.  And as a reward, I got to hear performances with the New York Opera Forum.  (There is a lot of opera lurking around this city!  That may become the topic of a post at some point.)  Not insignificantly, I think, the liner notes for the remastered first full recording lament that "it is easy, though mistaken, to regard it as a less than excellent opera."  Based on my own experience, I would say that it can be easy, and may well be mistaken.  But it has certainly moved me to think about what I expect of opera conventions, and what the merits of lavishing loving investigation on not-quite-masterpieces may be.

Act II, Arena di Verona, 2005
Photo: Maurizio Brenzoni
The glorious dramatic implausibilities of grand opera are perhaps one of the genre's most persistent stereotypes (or, if one prefers, pervasive archetypes.)  I don't find them necessarily alienating, nor necessarily a sign of paucity of invention or complexity... take Trovatore! But I confess that, with characters who seemed, on the whole, less than complex, Gioconda started out by irritating me.  An entire ship gets set on fire.  A banished prince is betrothed (sort of) to a street singer but when he saves her blind mother from being put to death as a witch he recognizes in the wife of the duke his long-lost love!  The duke poisons his wife (as he thinks) and then throws a party.  The Evil Baritone not only lusts after the soprano but gratuitously drowns the contralto.  Ahimè!

So, Gioconda may not belong to my favorite operas; but I've still enjoyed getting to know it.  Looking past the exclamations, there are plenty of other points of interest in the libretto, the role of religion and religious language not being the least. The mezzo, for instance, sings a prayer to the Virgin for protection in her elopement with a man who is not her husband: "You know how much faith has brought me here..."    Not being carried away by the drama, I invested more of my energy in looking for musical structure, motifs, how mood changes were indicated, and how conflict was built.  My biggest "aha" moment: that the blind woman handing over her rosary to the mezzo is not merely a schmaltzy gesture, but will become "a profound prophecy," according to the libretto, and a motif repeated in the orchestra at Significant Moments.  Aha aha aha. And though the characters may not undergo any transformation to speak of, they do get exciting music.  Enzo's entranced "Cielo e mar" and Gioconda's wildly despairing "Suicidio!" are famous showpieces, but some of my favorite moments in the opera are where these over-the-top characters confront each other (or declare eternal love, but usually confront each other.)  The soprano and mezzo get a truly fierce vocal battle over who loves the tenor more, whom the tenor loves, and whether or not the soprano will kill the mezzo!  The Evil Baritone gets a rollicking fishing song to add verisimilitude to his Act II disguise.  There's a love duet, too.  The Act III finale is a fine example of Everyone Being Alarmed And Horrified In Beautiful Music.  So, there's a lot to like.  It just may be necessary to put objections to melodrama even more firmly aside than usual when watching the madness unfold.

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