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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (1876)
Maria Callas (La Gioconda), Fedora Barbieri (Laura), Maria Amadini (La Cieca), Gianni Poggi (Enzo Grimaldi), Paolo Silveri (Barnaba), Giulio Neri (Alvise), CETRA Chorus, Turin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antonino Votto
Recorded 6th-10th September 1952 in the RAI Auditorium, Turin
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma: Casta Diva ... Ah! Bello a me ritorno, I Puritani: O rendetemi la speme ... Qui la voce sua soave ... Vien, diletto, e in ciel la luna
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde: Isolde’s Liebestod (sung in Italian)
Maria Callas (soprano), Turin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Basile
Recorded 8th (Wagner), 9th (Norma) and 10th (Puritani) November 1949 ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110302-04 [3 CDs 54:04, 76:46, 59:17]


"La Gioconda" 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 Italian Radio.

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 set.

Christopher Howell


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