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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 - 1886)
La Gioconda (1876)

La Gioconda - Maria Callas (Soprano)
La Cieca - Maria Amadini (Contralto)
Barnaba - Paolo Silveri (Baritone)
Alvise Badoere - Giulio Neri (Bass)
Laura - Fedora Barbiere (Mezzo-Soprano)
Enzo Grimaldo - Gianni Poggi (Tenor)
Zuane - Piero Poldi (Bass)
Isepo - Armando Benzi (Tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of RAI Turin/Antonino Votto
Recorded September 1952
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835) Casta Diva (Norma)

Norma - Maria Callas (Soprano)
Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883) Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde) sung in Italian
Isolde - Maria Callas (Soprano)
Orchestra of RAI, Turin/Arturo Basile
Recorded 1949
REGIS RRC3004 [3 CDs: 55.05+54.43+77.00]

'La Gioconda' is one of that group of Italian operas which might be termed conviction opera, for want of a better phrase. Concerned with the depiction of character and relationships via a series of dramatic events, these works can sometimes degenerate into a series of set pieces barely connected by a creaky plot. But when they are performed with drama and conviction, then they are transformed. 'La Gioconda' is just such a piece, dependent on a full-blooded diva in the title role to carry the audience with her. So it is understandable that the piece rarely receives performances outside Italy. The fact that it is best known for the ballet music (the eponymous 'Dance of the Hours') only renders credibility more difficult.

Callas recorded 'La Gioconda' for EMI in 1959 and it was the role in which she made her Italian debut, at Verona in 1947. But it was one of the heavier roles that she dropped and she rarely (if ever) performed in the opera after 1953 (and in fact only gave 13 performances of it between 1947 and 1953). This is her first recording of the opera and dates from 1952. It shares the same conductor (Antonino Votto) as the EMI recording and has perhaps a marginally better cast than the EMI recording. Callas had refined her interpretation by the time of her second recording, she declared that anyone who wanted to understand what she was about should listen to the final act. But everything that she sang is of interest, and the earlier recording has the advantage that fewer apologies need be made about the state of her voice.

The opera opens with the chorus, in poor form, singing with more conviction than accuracy. But Paolo Silveri displays his fine, shapely baritone as Barnaba. Callas's first entrance is quite discreet, Ponchielli gives the performer no opportunity for spectacular dramatics at this stage, though Callas's contributions later in the act are heartbreaking. Votto controls the drama well so that the set pieces flow into one another to create a dramatic ensemble. Key to all this is Silveri, his portrayal of scheming, treacherous Barnaba.

As Enzo, Gianni Poggi's big scene opening Act 2 is frankly a disappointment. A tenor with a big, open-throated technique, his voice shows disappointing signs of an incipient beat. And his performance is unimaginative and four-square. In ensemble, particularly with Callas, he seems to be spurred on to better things, but alone he is a disappointment. Fedora Barbieri's Laura displays a firm voice and fine array of low notes, but often she seem unwilling, or unable to join the magnificent notes into a decent line. As Laura she sounds rather too mature. Against Callas's volatile Gioconda, Barbieri sounds positively matronly. But they trade insults in a fine manner and their duet fairly crackles. It is unfortunate, though, that they could not quite agree the pitch of the final note.

Neri displays a wonderfully dark voice as the implacable Alvise. His and Barbieri's scene in Act 3 is spine tingling stuff. But in terms of vocal sound quality, this is much more Luna and Azucena than Otello and Desdemona. This is partly Ponchielli's fault for the tessitura of the role of Laura, but Barbieri seems too content to play the role like many of the other disappointed, mature women in her repertoire.

But it is for the last Act that one listens to 'La Gioconda' and the entire act belongs to the title role, here Callas completely makes it her own. This is conviction opera indeed. What in lesser hands could easily become maudlin is turned into real tragedy and she takes the other singers with her, creating a wonderfully dramatic ensemble. Callas plays the role with a voice that is often plummy and veiled. She makes much use of her distinctive chest register with frequent dramatic changes of gear. All this contributes to Callas's magnificent portrayal of the volatile Gioconda, but it is not for the faint-hearted.

As a bonus, there are two tracks that Callas recorded in 1949. A Casta Diva from 'Norma', recorded without chorus, is truly a demonstration of how this artist could change her vocal quality depending on the role. Though her interpretation may have deepened over the years, this is a beautifully sung performance.

The other bonus track is the Liebestod from 'Tristan und Isolde'. Callas sang a surprising amount of Wagner - 12 performances of 'Tristan und Isolde' between 1947 and 1950, 6 performances of 'Die Walküre' in 1949, 4 performances of 'Parsifal' in 1949. In fact she was singing Brünnhilde when Serafin asked her to stand in for an indisposed singer and sing Elvira. Which she did, the following day, to great acclaim. And the rest, as they say, is history. But there can be few singers that can have made such a remarkable transition, so it is fascinating to hear the young Callas performing Wagner. Sung with a wonderful sense of line and a feeling for the fioriture, surprisingly few of the Italian words come through.

No mention is made on the discs about how the transfers were made. I could almost have imagined that they were done using something like the method used by Nimbus with a natural resonance being added at the time of playback. However the transfer was effected, it was done with minimum interference. The sound is adequate and natural sounding with a wide dynamic range though it can become rather congested in the big ensemble numbers. This recording has also been issued on the Fonit Cetra label, in a transfer which was well received, but without the fascinating two bonus tracks.

Though this will never be a library recording, this record is a must for all lovers of Callas and those interested in the recorded history of 'La Gioconda'.

Robert Hugill

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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