“La Gioconda,” by Amilcare Ponchielli, established the composer as a creator of operas on par with Verdi after its 1876 premiere at La Scala in Milan. Yet while individual numbers such as the “Dance of the Hours” and the aria “Cielo e mar” (“The Sky and the Sea”) have achieved lasting fame, the lyric drama in four acts only occasionally receives new productions.
This month, La Scala is mounting one by Davide Livermore, an Italian director. The last performances of “La Gioconda” at the house took place in 1997, in a revival of the staging by Nicola Benois from the 1950s, which had starred none other than Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano.
The sopranos Saioa Hernández and Irina Churilova will take over performances as the title character from Sonya Yoncheva, who fell ill with the flu during rehearsals. The cast, under the baton of Frédéric Chaslin, also includes Daniela Barcellona as Laura, Anna Maria Chiuri as La Cieca and Roberto Frontali as Barnaba.
The libretto by Arrigo Boito, based loosely on the Victor Hugo play “Angélo, Tyran de Padoue,” takes place in 17th-century Venice. La Gioconda, a ballad singer, fights off the advances of Barnaba, a spy of the Venetian State Inquisition. She is in love with a Genoese nobleman, Enzo, who is disguised as a sea captain; he in turn loves Laura, who has been forced to marry a leader of the Inquisition. After saving Laura’s life and allowing her to escape with Enzo, La Gioconda stabs herself to death; Barnaba bends over her body and screams that he has drowned her mother, La Cieca.
In Mr. Livermore’s staging, Venice becomes a dreamscape where ghosts wander along the lagoon. The city can disappear at any moment, recreating both the sensory perceptions of La Cieca, who is blind, and the fog that frequently envelopes its buildings. Inspirations for the sets, by Mr. Livermore’s production team Giò Forma, include the French cartoonist known as Moebius — in particular his book “Venise Celeste” — and the Fellini film “Casanova.”
Mr. Livermore emphasized the importance of mounting operas that helped shape national values in the aftermath of Italian unification in the 19th century. “It was a period in which art educated society about solidarity, loyalty,” he said. Today, he continued, “it is up to the director to show things to society which it doesn’t see.”
He considers La Cieca a “profoundly mystic” character who is stigmatized much in the way that “haters” mob people on social media. In this reading, when Barnaba and his constituents claim that she can see despite being blind and declare her a witch, they are in fact expressing fear of her spiritual powers.
Mr. Livermore points to the genius of the librettist Boito for capturing a full range of human emotion within three hours of opera. “It could make for a great television series,” he said by video conference from Milan. “Boito wanted to tell of love, sex, hatred, betrayal, the desire for revenge — the sky.”
Boito wrote under the pen name of Tobia Gorrio as a member of the Scapigliatura, an anti-bourgeois movement of artists and intellectuals in 1860s Milan. Mr. Livermore considers the group “the true avant-garde of its time,” pointing to moments in the opera that shock the audience in thriller-like fashion.
Mr. Chaslin, the conductor of the production at La Scala, believes that “La Gioconda” drew essential impulses from Verdi while opening the door for his final operas, “Otello” and “Falstaff,” for which Boito provided the librettos (he also helped revise “Simon Boccanegra”). Verdi had stopped producing operas for 16 years after the 1871 premiere of “Aida.”
For both Mr. Livermore and Mr. Chaslin, the sinister character of Barnaba is a kind of prototype for Iago, Otello’s scheming officer. Further down the line, “La Gioconda” was an important steppingstone toward the “verismo” operas at the turn of the 20th century — for which Puccini, a student of Ponchielli, is the best-known representative.
Mr. Chaslin draws a parallel between the title characters of “La Gioconda” and “Tosca,” both stories “of a woman who prefers to die than cede to a man who wants to possess her.” He also points to modern elements in Ponchielli’s score such as Barnaba’s final utterance: Rather than sing a high note, as per convention, he exclaims “Ah!” in what is indicated in the libretto as a “suffocated scream,” while the orchestra races with a rising chromatic scale to the chilling close.
The composer’s vocal writing is, meanwhile, a tour de force for the soloists. Mr. Chaslin calls it a “vicious cycle” that since the opera is not regularly performed, it requires singers who are both fit for the task and willing to invest the time in learning the music.
The opera also requires choristers ranging from monks to shipwrights (La Scala’s production features a chorus of over 120). Mr. Chaslin noted the “gigantic” proportion of the ensemble numbers, in particular the third-act finale, which comes right after the “Dance of the Hours.”
“La Gioconda” is in fact the only opera-ballo (or opera with dance, roughly in the vein of the grand opera tradition) besides “Aida” to remain in repertoire. The score will be performed in full, as is tradition at La Scala.
Costumes by Mariana Fracasso travel freely between the centuries. Barnaba and his assassins evoke both the commedia dell’arte stock character Pulcinella (a burlesque figure who wears baggy white clothing and a tall white hat), as depicted by the 18th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, and the killers from the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange.”
Meanwhile, the theme of the Inquisition will be stripped of any allusions to the Roman Catholic Church and rather be depicted as a secret, oppressive power. Within this reading, the rosary of La Cieca that is passed to Laura is merely a symbol of mystical spirituality.
The final scene draws inspiration from Alejandro Aménabar’s horror film “The Others.” “We discover that Barnaba is the only one still alive,” Mr. Livermore said. “And he still desires blood and sex in a horrendous manner.”
After La Gioconda takes her own life, her spirit is reunited with that of La Cieca. And she will, Mr. Livermore said, “probably remain suspended on the lagoon of Venice for eternity.”