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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda - Opera in Four Acts
La Gioconda ……Giannina Arangi-Lombardi
Laura…………… Ebe Stignani
La Cieca……… Camilla Rota
Enzo…………… Alessandro Granda
Barnaba……… Gaetano Viviani
Alvise………… Corrado Zambelli

Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Lorenzo Molajoli
& arias by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi sung by Arangi-Lombardi
(orchestras and conductors unidentified)
La Gioconda recorded in Milan 10th- 30th September 1931. Arias recorded on various dates between 1926 and 1933
NAXOS (Great Opera Recordings Series) 8.110112-14 3 CDs [169:21]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

This boxed set is a transfer of the first ever recording of this quintessentially 'grand opera'. It is thus an important historical issue, and of equal value is the chance to hear major singers of the first half of the twentieth century, such as Granda, Stignani, and, most of all, Arangi-Lombardi. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recording, though, is the mystery surrounding the identity of its conductor. "Lorenzo Molajoli" is not to be found anywhere in the history books, and the likelihood is, as the notes point out, that the name is a pseudonym for a conductor who had contractual reasons for not appearing on the Italian Columbia label. It is clear from the stylish and authoritative way the performance is shaped that, whoever was masquerading as 'Signor Molajoli' was a maestro well versed in this music. The opening prelude indicates a reassuringly high standard of orchestral playing (not always to be taken for granted at La Scala). Another good example is the short postlude to Act 1, where the violin melody is phrased superbly and delivered with intense expression.

The La Scala Chorus is not always up to the standard of its orchestra - tenors in particular are inclined to sound a little rustic. On the other hand, the women are good, and they all preserve excellent ensemble with the conductor.

The recording is, by the standards of its era, a highly successful one. Balance is good but natural sounding, and though, as you would expect, there is a fair amount of surface noise, this has been kept to a minimum. Ward Marston, the acclaimed engineer in charge of the transferring process, admits that a 'small amount of digital reverberation' has been added to enhance the sound, but this has been done sensitively and unobtrusively.

Which brings us to the cast. The part of Barnaba is villainous after the manner of Iago, and he has some spine-chilling moments. Viviani, who sings this role, is mostly good, but hits some weak patches here and there; it is a convincing but not a great reading. The part of Enzo, on the other hand, is taken by one of the outstanding Italian tenors of the day, Alessandro Granda. He is most impressive, singing with a combination of passion and stylish lyricism. In particular, his great aria Cielo e mar in Act 2 is very fine, rising from a quiet and slightly tentative start to a fine climax. He is certainly worth hearing.

But it is the two female leads, Ebe Stignani and Giannina Arangi-Bardi, who undoubtedly steal the limelight in this recording. Stignani gives a touching and strongly characterised performance as Laura, while Arangi-Bardi is a compelling Gioconda. Both of these singers were among the very finest of the between-the-wars years in Italy, and it is a treat to have their singing preserved for us to enjoy. Each was a fine character actress as well as a great singer, and both the aristocratic Laura and the commanding Gioconda come across with great dramatic power. The bonus of the recording is the series of arias sung by Arangi-Bardi; Casta Diva alone demonstrates why she was held in such renown. My own favourite is her deeply expressive account of Madre pietosa vergine from La Forza del Destino; the way her voice opens up in the great soaring phrases is truly thrilling - this is the real article.

Italian opera enthusiasts will want this disc. It's a fascinating issue from the 'canary-fancying' point of view, but is also a convincing account of a great and still underrated opera.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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