Revel in Opera Modo’s ‘La Gioconda’ at The War Memorial
Editor’s Note: This review was updated from its initial publishing to reflect the reviewer seeing the second cast.
DETROIT, Mich.–Sometimes you leave a theater thinking to yourself: “Wow. I just saw something very special that I will never forget.” Such was the case watching Opera Modo perform La Gioconda at the The War Memorial in Gross Pointe Farms.
This opera company, which has been surprising and delighting audiences big and small for a few years now, has blown the doors off of what people who love theater and opera expect when they see opera in Detroit.
First, Executive Director Danielle Wright is a master at choosing venues to perform, whether it is the rawness of the JamHandy space in Detroit to this historic venue on Lake St. Claire. She chose this venue because the opera takes part on the sea and at times on a ship. She is choosing more site-specific venues for the rest of her season.
La Gioconda is a an opera in four acts by Amilcare Ponchielli, which is set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. It is based on a play in prose by Victor Hugo called “Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.” And let me tell you, this is quite the Italian tele-novella in terms of plot.
There is lust, poisoned lovers, rekindled romance, a love triangle, murder. It’s all fabulous, and the super-titles, which Opera Modo has long delivered to audiences through its smartphone app, can make an audience crack up; the plot twists sound perfectly hilarious when read aloud, even when a murder or poisoning is imminent.
It begins during carnival celebrations before Lent. Barnaba (Ben King-Quale/Brandon C.S. Hood) a state spy, is lusting after La Gioconda (Leslie Mason/Heather Hjelle) as she leads her blind mother, La Cieca (Kathy Meagher) across the Square. When his advances are rejected, he gets a weird version of revenge by denouncing La Cieca as a witch whose evil powers influenced the outcome of the gondola race. Alvise Badoero (Joseph Trumbo/Evan Ross), a member of the Venetian Inquisition is married to Laura (Kaswanna Kanyinda/Danielle Wright) who places La Cieca under her personal protection. Barnaba notices something between Laura and a sea captain, and we come to find that she and the Captain, Enzo (Christopher Eaglin/Edward Brennan), have a past as lovers. Enzo admits his purpose in returning to Venice is to take Laura and begin a new life elsewhere. Barnaba is a total skunk, and he rats out Enzo to Alvise. Meanwhile, La Giocanda is Laura’s rival for Enzo’s affections, and they come to form a heart-rending sisterhood of a kind through the story.
The opera is presented with only keyboard accompaniment by Maestro Steven McGhee. The opera is directed by A. Scott Perry. The actors are in very simple neutral costume, variations on black. The delight in this production beyond the superb voices and acting is the use of the venue. The four acts are presented in four separate rooms of The War Memorial, a historic building decorated in the first years of the 20th century, dripping with the past. The high ceilings, velvet drapes, chandeliers and art work all provide a totally unique experience for an audience that tops out at about 80. Add to that the fact that the actors are sometimes inches away from you as they sing this tender and tragic story, belting just feet away…and the experience is unforgettable.
It helps that Ponchielli’s arias are gorgeous, saturated with love, pain and fierceness. These vocalists, freed perhaps from the largeness of a full production in an opera house–fifty yards and more from their audience members–are able to connect on an entirely different level. Mr. Eaglin’s tenor is lovely and the tenderness he conveys at the upper range is tear inducing. Mr. Brennan’s Enzo is a bit more fierce than Mr. Eaglin’s portrayal, and his belts reach a slightly higher caliber. Ms. Mason is sublime in the title role. She varies her vocals across a spectrum of emotions, and her belts lifted me out of my seat in a most wonderful way–again, just a few feet from my chair. Her final moments in Act 4 with the lecherous Barnaba is the stuff of opera you do not forget. Ms. Hjelle puts her own stamp on Giocanda, her belts somewhat larger than Ms. Mason’s, not to say that larger belts are better for this character, just that the actresses were in slight contrast in how they voiced the title character.
Ms. Kanyinda, who won a 2019 Wilde Award for her performance in The Consul last season, is very much a rising star and slays her role as Laura, modulating between pain, sorrow and devotion, and lifting her arias to the heavens. Ms. Wright’s vocals, too, are clarion and heartfelt, and she brings slightly more texture to her acting. Mr. King-Quayle and Mr. Hood are both wonderful operatic actors with rich baritones. And both bring a slightly different version of the dastardly Barnaba to the space. Mr. Trumbo slips in to a bass baritone in Act 3 that makes one take notice. Mr. Ross blends a cogent feel for his character with his smooth vocals. The bounce to bass-baritone for Alvise is part of an Act 3 finale that gave me chills. Ms. Meagher’s vocals, too, are rich and velvety, and she owns the part, and not just because she is blind in life and also playing a blind character.
In the annals of opera, this minimalist production will not stand next to grand productions of La Boheme and Aida at The Detroit Opera House. But those are different experiences to be had–rich and wonderful on their own. For the record, the late Dr. David DiChiera, founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre, loved what Opera Modo is doing, and expressed it many times. For many, opera on the grand stage is hard to connect with, especially for casual or non-fans of the genre. This production turns that on its head, and these site-specific productions Ms. Wright is doing this season are perfect for the opera newbies to cut their teeth on a unique experience.
Everybody lucky enough to get a ticket has a front seat for these productions.
What Opera Modo is doing is bringing the wonders of great pieces to an almost living-room experience for audiences. If you can stand a few feet away from these actors, and not be transformed, moved and chilled, by this story delivered through these performers’ instruments…take yourself to a doctor to find out what you are missing in your soul.