is a good example of how, in a healthy
operatic climate, a modestly gifted
composer can come up at least once with
a fine and theatrically effective opera.
Take the end of Act One. After some
noisy choral celebrations there is a
sudden hush as a distant chorus and
organ intone "Angele Dei".
Suddenly, against this backdrop, the
voice of La Gioconda flashes like a
meteor with her lacerating cry of "Tradita"
("Betrayed"). And when the
voice of La Gioconda happens to be that
of Maria Callas in her prime, the spine-tingling
factor is guaranteed. There’s a lot
more to this piece than just the two
famous arias "Cielo e mar"
(for tenor) and "Suicidio"
(for soprano), plus the pretty "Dance
of the Hours", which takes on another
meaning in the context of the horrible
events on either side of it. For his
fourth opera Ponchielli had a libretto
by Arrigo Boito based on a play by Victor
Hugo, a bloodthirsty tale but offering
fine opportunities for dramatic contrasts
between the characters. The music often
looks beyond the contemporary Verdi,
anticipating the "veristi".
Even Italy remembers Ponchielli only
for this work, though Gianandrea Gavazzeni,
a staunch advocate of neglected Italian
music, was an admirer of "I Lituani"
and conducted at least parts of it for
There are two versions
of this opera featuring Maria Callas;
the 1959 version on EMI will obviously
not be available to companies like Naxos
for a few years yet. The 1952 performance
was a Cetra recording and it has to
be said it is not as good sonically
as the Decca and EMI recordings from
this period which Naxos have been reissuing.
But the voices are mostly firm and well
caught and in time you get used to the
backward, rather shallow and dry orchestral
sound. Thanks to Ward Marston’s work
the shrillness which used to be a Cetra
characteristic has been tamed and admirers
of Callas need not hesitate.
While Callas’s Cetra
"Traviata" from this period
was a pretty awful affair excepting
her own contribution, this performance
is generally effective all round. Gianni
Poggi does not turn in the most honeyed
"Cielo e mar" you’ve ever
heard, especially in the first part
of each verse (he is more convincing
when the orchestra wells up under him)
but his voice is fresh and attractive
and he is clearly involved in the part.
In those years Fedora Barbieri was,
together with Giulietta Simionato, taking
over from Ebe Stignani as Italy’s leading
mezzo-soprano. While Simionato was the
more refined artist, Barbieri threw
herself into her roles with a tigerish
abandon which may remind you of Callas
until you actually hear them together
and realise there is no comparison;
Callas is so much more detailed in her
response to words and vocal shading,
alongside which Barbieri relies on all-purpose
big-butch heft. But it’s an exciting
performance – their Act Two exchanges
virtually amount to a chest voice competition.
This opera is rich
in smaller parts that have important
things to do. In the other mezzo role
Maria Amadini makes no great impression
in her aria "Voce di donna"
but the Alvise lets us hear the powerful
tones of Giulio Neri (1909-1958), whose
early death robbed Italy of one of its
finest dramatic basses. Paolo Silveri
in the pivotal role of Barnaba is a
little unsteady and uncertain of pitch,
but he characterises well. Antonino
Votto, who also conducted the 1959 version,
was often slack in his La Scala recordings
but is here vital and poetic as required.
However, when Maria
Callas is in the cast the performance
automatically becomes "hers".
Here is all the total involvement for
which she was famed, while her voice
is as yet untarnished by the heavy demands
she made of it. We hear her at an earlier
stage still in the three makeweights,
already memorable as an interpreter
and vocally fascinating. Wagner from
this source may raise eyebrows (though
she also took part in a "Parsifal"
for Italian Radio, under Gui with a
cast also notable for the presence of
Boris Christoff) but Basile’s command
of Wagnerian ebb and flow is not negligible
– never suppose that Toscanini was the
only Italian who could conduct Wagner
– and the excerpt builds up strongly.
Those just seeking
to know this opera without paying too
much will have to decide how much of
a drawback the sound quality is, but
the presence of Callas and a generally
effective performance all round are
strong points in favour of the present