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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886).
La Gioconda. Opera in 4 Acts (1876)
La Gioconda, Violeta Urmana (soprano). Enzo Grimaldi, Placido Domingo (ten). Barnaba, Lada Ataneli (bar). Laura Adorno, Luciana D’Intino (m. sop). Alvise, Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass). La Cieca, Elisabetta Fiorillo (m. sop).
Choir and Orchestra of ‘Bayerischen Rundfunks’ (Bavarian Radio)/Marcello Viotti.
Recorded Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunks, July and August 2002
Special Price
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57451 2 [3CDs: 53.49+55.08+59.42 min].


Ponchielli was born in a remote village near Cremona in 1824. Just like Verdi he was the son of the local shopkeeper, but with the significant difference that his father was a musician, the local organist. Lessons from his father and then in the local town led to his being admitted to the Milan Conservatory as a boarding student on a full scholarship. He graduated in 1853 with the highest honours. It was the year of Il Trovatore and La Traviata when Verdi’s genius was in full flow. Ponchielli’s first opera was performed, with contributions from the Cremonese to defray expenses, in 1856 and was a moderate success locally. To live, Ponchielli became Cremona’s bandmaster, eventually re-writing his first opera and seeing it staged, to some acclaim, in Milan (Teatro Del Verme), in 1872. At the age of 38 it seemed Ponchielli had his breakthrough when Ricordi, Verdi’s friend and publisher, commissioned an opera from him for production at La Scala and provided a librettist; Ghislanzoni, versifier of Aida. ‘I lituani’ led in turn to a further commission for that theatre, this time to a libretto by Arrigo Boito (although he signed himself anagrammatically Tobio Gorro). La Gioconda was premiered on April 8th 1876 with an excellent cast. The conductor of that first production, Franco Faccio was, a decade later, to premiere Verdi’s Otello, also to a libretto by Boito. It was well received, after which Ponchielli revised it for performances in 1880. It is in this form that we hear the opera in the present recording.

La Gioconda is a convoluted story of passion, intrigue, violence and ultimately tragedy. It is set in 17th century Venice; a republic presided over by a Doge and the notorious ‘Council of Ten’. Gioconda, a street singer with a blind mother, loves Enzo who does not return her love as he is in love with Laura, wife of a nobleman Alvise. Gioconda is lusted over by Barnaba, a spy of ‘The Council’. In revenge at her spurning his advances, Barnaba has Gioconda’s blind mother, La Cieca, arrested, accusing her of witchcraft. Laura pleads La Cieca’s case with her husband and secures her release. In return, Gioconda helps Laura and Enzo elope and escapes Alvise’s revenge by promising herself to Barnaba. When he comes to claim her she kills herself.

Yes, La Gioconda is an opera of convoluted melodrama, but it is a work packed with melody and motif. The motifs might not have Wagnerian complexity, nor the music the dramatic cohesion of a Verdian masterpiece, nonetheless it has qualities that are far superior to later so-called verismo works that are more regularly staged. Ten years or more ago, it was voted one of the works that London opera goers would like to see staged in the capital. In over 40 years of opera going I have only managed one production (U.K. ‘Opera North’) and that was only put on with Peter Moores sponsorship (yes, he that makes possible ‘Opera in English’ on the Chandos label).

Fortunately the work has fared better on record than in the theatre with companies keen, as here, to capture the interpretation of a particular singer, usually the soprano or tenor. In 1952 Cetra caught Callas in best voice with an Italian supporting cast. It is available in good mono sound on the Regis label at bargain price (review). In 1959 EMI took Callas into the studio for Gioconda as one of its regular La Scala recordings with a fine Italian cast including the young duo of Fiorenza Cossotto and Pierro Cappuccilli. However, the diva’s vocal decline was already under way, and vibrant and dramatic though her interpretation is, it does not match her earlier effort. Callas’s regular tenor, di Stefano, had earlier recorded Enzo with a fading Zinka Milanov in a cast of Met regulars. This issue appeared in the UK on the Decca label and was overshadowed by its own set featuring a strong voiced Del Monaco as Enzo and the full toned Anita Cerquetti as Gioconda. An Italian of much promise her career did not flourish after an operation in 1958. That set is currently available on two discs at mid-price. Regrettably this recording has displaced, in Decca’s current catalogue, the 1967 Tebaldi version - one of her last recordings of a part she never sang on stage. She freely admitted to studying the Callas interpretations before her own recording, and she makes a superb Gioconda, rich-toned and plenty of heft in the final scene. Decca surrounded her with a cast of considerable quality capped by Bergonzi’s beautiful toned and elegantly phrased Enzo and Gardelli’s conducting. I hope this set will re-emerge again soon, perhaps as a ‘Decca Legend’. It deserves that accolade.

Despite the strengths of the Decca 1967 issue, and the critical response to it, the company took an outstanding cast into the studio again in 1980. It is against that performance that I must compare this latest EMI offering. The reason for this latest studio venture is, I suspect, the desire of Domingo to set down his interpretation of Enzo, a part he first sang in his native Spain in 1970 and which he has never recorded. The first thing of note about his singing here is that it is with true tenor tone. It is without the baritonal patina expected of a man aged over sixty and who has been the world’s greatest Otello for a generation. His vocal powers are undiminished, whilst his interpretative power to express his characterisation in the studio is enhanced. Throughout, Domingo sings with complete understanding of the many, and varied, dramatic situations that arise, and it is noteworthy that when he is involved with colleagues they perform better than in their own solos. His great solo, ‘Cielo e mar’ (CD2 tr3) might not be as elegantly phrased as Bergonzi’s, nor have the beauty of tone of Pavarotti on Decca’s latest recording, but it is well sung and suitably reflective. Whilst Caballé was a little strained at the climax of ‘Suicidio’ on Decca, her tonal palette is distinctly as Italianate as the native Tebaldi’s. Here, the Lithuanian Violetta Urmana, who has sung dramatic mezzo roles such as Eboli and has moved up her register to sing Kundry, and Micaela on EMI’s recent Carmen, has good lower notes as would be expected, but a metallic edge is in evidence further up the stave. She has no Italianate colour in the voice. She reminds me of the great Birgit Nilsson singing Tosca, the notes are hit but the tone doesn’t fit. I can, in future perhaps, hear her voice cutting through Wagnerian orchestral textures as Sieglinde, or even Brünnhilde, but she is no Gioconda; try her ‘Suicidio’ (CD3 tr12). As to the evil Barnaba, the Georgian Lado Atanali also lacks a palette of Italian colour in the voice. He is somewhat dry toned and the voice spreads at the top when under pressure; he is no match to Milnes for Decca. As to the Alvise of Roberto Scandiuzzi, where has that fine basso voice of ten years ago gone? Then he was seen as the natural successor to a truly great line of Italian basso cantante voices, whereas here his tone is ill-focused with an incipient wobble (CD2 tr18). Ghiaurov, for Decca, with sonorous steady tone, makes so much more of the part. Of this cast, only Luciana D’Intino, as Laura, matches her lover for quality of tone, and above all, expressing what is in the words. She contrasts, but matches, the leaner toned but vibrant Baltsa on Decca.

The sympathetic and idiomatic conducting of Viotti is a strong plus as is the excellent singing of the chorus. The conductor moves the drama along well, is sympathetic to the singers, and shapes and phrases the ballet music with a nice turn of the wrist (CD3 trs 5-7). The booklet is all one could expect including artist profiles; notably absent from EMI’s recent Carmen. As to the recording, the chorus and orchestra are well caught in an open acoustic. The voices however, have an over-esonant echo about them and they are not always easily determined on the sound-tage.

Given Domingo’s age and the present state of the recording industry, the great tenor, in excellent voice, cannot have many more visits to the studio left. EMI have missed a golden opportunity by not presenting their star in a galaxy of like voices. Decca wins hands down by having done just that. Even worse, if the Tebaldi and Bergonzi recording is reissued, the EMI moves down to third in the pecking order!

Robert J Farr


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