Review: La Gioconda at Teatro San Carlo, Naples

The Frenchman Stéphane Lissner, current Sovrintendente and Artistic Director of the storied Teatro San Carlo in Naples, can be credited with upgrading the program and quality of what was once the leading opera house in Italy. Most importantly, he has achieved what any impresario prays for: a full house.

La Gioconda at Teatro San Carlo, Naples 2024

© ph.Luciano Romano / Teatro di San Carlo 2024

For the new production of Amilcare Ponchielli’s masterpiece La Gioconda, a co-production with the Teatre Liceu of Barcelona, he faced a completely sold-out house for all nights featuring the dream cast of Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, and Ludovic Tézier. To capitalize more fully on this opportunity, Lissner performed a particularly elegant hat trick.

At short notice, the impresario turned what would likely have been the dress rehearsal into a special anniversary performance to celebrate the Russian-born diva’s 30th Anniversary on the Stage. This performance quickly sold out as well and attracted opera lovers from all over Europe, something the San Carlo has failed to achieve for many years.

Directed by Romain Gilbert, with stage sets by Etienne Pluss and costumes by Christian Lacroix (no points for guessing the nationalities!) La Gioconda proved a flawless operatic evening.

Netrebko’s voice is now perfectly suited for this role. She commanded the stage with her charisma and she effortlessly filled the cavernous Teatro San Carlo, the largest opera house in Europe, with her sumptuous, voluptuous yet beautifully agile soprano. She effortlessly demonstrated her impeccable vocal control, delivering stunning diminuendos at will, showing nuance, good taste, and awe-inspiring legato.

Ponchielli – La Gioconda – Anna Netrebk: “Suicidio” – Teatro San Carlo 2024

She was well matched with Tézier, another singer (and Frenchman) who is at the peak of his powers. As Barnaba, the evil spy, he was downright scary. A baritone so beautiful and effective has rarely been heard since the halcyon days of an Ettore Bastianini.

La Gioconda at Teatro San Carlo, Naples 2024

© ph.Luciano Romano / Teatro di San Carlo 2024

Jonas Kaufmann as Enzo Grimaldo still possesses the star power, though vocally he appears cautious, and his distinctive instrument is showing signs of strain. But his artistry and musicianship carry him through, and he skillfully varies vocal techniques to great effect.

Ponchielli – La Gioconda – Kaufmann: “Cielo e Mar” – Teatro San Carlo 2024

Replacing the much anticipated but frequently cancelling Anita Rachvelishvili, Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Swiss-French, not full French) delivered a credible and perfectly adequate Laura, though the chemistry and warmth were lacking.

Ukrainian contralto Kseniia Nikolaieva plumbed impressive depths as La Gioconda’s blind mother La Cieca. She served in both casts, as did Alexander Köpeczi (hors competition on the nationality guessing game; he is Romanian of Hungarian ancestry) who portrayed Alvise Badoèro, a role that brilliantly suits his magnificent and sonorous bass.

The second cast featured Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian in the title role. Her soprano is powerful and loud, often engaging, but rarely nuanced and therefore ultimately quite tiresome.

Her Barnaba was the very promising Ernesto Petti, a young Italian baritone worth following (and he lives in France).

Angelo Villari, the second cast’s Enzo Grimaldo, possesses a hugely exciting tenor of remarkable beauty. It was a pity he faltered in his landmark aria Cielo e mar.

Anna-Maria Chiuri showed her great stage experience as Laura. She is a reliable, solid, believable character singer.

The orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo was led by veteran conductor Pinchas Steinberg, with the players sounding significantly better in the second performance. The chorus was animated and crisp, a big improvement over previous years.

The stage sets and costumes were simple, completely traditional, yet highly effective, fitting the plot and the period. The direction was tight and sensible, and even the Dance of the Hours was done with more taste and subtlety than usually seen, neatly blending Venetian and Neapolitan traditions. The director even included a dramatic burning of the ship by Enzo. Firefighters stood nervously in the wings, no doubt remembering the 1816 fire that burned the Teatro San Carlo to the ground.

If Lissner keeps up the standards, he will have done Naples an enormous favour. Possibly not so dissimilar to the years of French rule in the Kingdom, a decade which is now regarded with more appreciation than it was at the time when Napoleon’s representatives ruled the ungovernable yet utterly seductive city.

Performances attended: 7 and 11 April, 2024

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