With everything working properly it would have been a lot of fun: Grange Park’s La Gioconda was reviewed

Mona Lisa

Grange Park Opera

The turn of the screw

Garsington Opera House

There are composers who are known for only one opera, and there are operas who are only known for one aria. But being a 19th century Italian opera composer and being known only for your ballet music – well, that’s kind of special. As the orchestra tiptoed into the “dance of the hours”, in Act 3 of Amilcare Ponchielli’s production of Amilcare Ponchielli Mona Lisa, the audience sighed in gratitude. There were also a few laughs. Ten minutes later, as the ballet clacked to a close (without a note of – you know – actual singing), they erupted into the loudest standing ovation we’ve heard all night.

It would probably always happen. The choreography (Sarah Fahie was credited with “Movement”) was fun: two gender dancers in flowing orange dresses performed a fun courtship. It culminated in a pillow fight and, like I said, the audience went crazy for it; or at least they went nuts for the one truly indelible melody in the entire three-hour drama. Nothing wrong with jaw-dropping looks, of course, and it might just be Ponchielli’s misfortune that the lone banger to take away in Mona Lisa — and arguably his entire career — is an atypical decorative brilliance in what is effectively a pumping, lust-driven gothic thriller set in a death-haunted Venice.

That wasn’t the only thing working against Stephen Medcalf’s production – although the most serious issue of the night I saw was he was out of anyone’s control. Mona Lisa demands charismatic singers in each of the six lead roles, and it has brought them to Grange Park – Ruxandra Donose quivering with ardor as Laura, Elisabetta Fiorillo generating a disconcerting aura around La Cieca’s blind, hunched figure, and above all, Amanda Echalaz burning the stage as La Gioconda, a Venetian street singer with an indomitable heart. Pale and passionate, her voice had the searing, blinding brilliance of strobe light.

It was no one’s fault that Joseph Calleja, playing Enzo (the third corner of the Laura-Gioconda love triangle), had succumbed to post-Covid vocal strain. We were warned that he might only be able to “score” the game; and Calleja duly fed his ailing larynx through Ponchielli’s grinder so the show could go on. But inevitably, with an opera like this, everything works at a lower power when the lead tenor isn’t at full power – a kind of musical-dramatic drop-off, unaided by slightly rambling orchestral playing (Stephen Barlow directed).

Disregard these issues, and there was a pleasantly grand extravaganza in the staging of Medcalf: a high-level melodrama performed on semi-abstract sets at some Hammer-era studios. The green marble steps gleamed dully; golden curtains enveloped the stage and the rigging of a ship became a spider’s web, upon which a black-clad (and dark-voiced) David Stout (Barnaba) lurched towards his prey as the Sadistic Inquisitor Alvise (Marco Spotti) chuckled and twirled his cape. With everything working properly, it would have been a lot of fun – certainly enough to eclipse this unsinkable ballet. Hopefully they revive it in a future season.

In the meantime, thanks to Grange Park Opera for the presentation Mona Lisa in the first place, and for giving us Janacek M Broucek last month. The traditional sweeps over the delighted, picnicking audiences who attend summer opera festivals overlook a crucial point. When you can count on a critical mass of ticket buyers who are simply in the game (or at least poached salmon and Bolly), you can afford to take artistic risks. It’s a lesson orchestras learned the hard way when their historic subscription base evaporated a few decades ago. Summer opera companies created a viable alternative almost simultaneously. Let them drink bubbly, if their presence means aficionados hear The Wreckers, Die Tote City Where Margot the Red.

Or, indeed, covers of the production quality of Britten’s Louisa Muller The turn of the screw. My colleague Alexandra Coghlan was very impressed with her first outing in 2019, and although the cast has changed, the overall impact is still compelling – whether it’s the atmospheric setting (no door to Bluebeard’s castle has ever open with such semi-sensitive menace) or lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth’s continuous mind-game with the fading daylight streaming through the sides of Garsington’s glass-enclosed theatre. Mark Wigglesworth attracts the sinister cries of birds from the Philharmonia Orchestra, the children (Maia Greaves and Ben Fletcher) are masters of themselves without the slightest ounce of preciousness, Helena Dix (Miss Jessel) oozes on stage like a monstrous mushroom and Verity Wingate, as governess, sings and smiles with sunny, chiming sweetness. Until we get to the end of the first act and we’re shown – with chilling frankness – that she really has nothing to smile about.

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