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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda - opera in four acts
La Gioconda, Maria Callas (soprano); Enzo Grimaldi, Gianni Poggi (ten); Barnaba, Paolo Silveri (bar); Laura Adorno, Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Alvise, Giulio Neri (bass); La Cieca, Maria Amadini (mezzo)
Turin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Cetra Chorus/Antonio Votto
Recorded Auditorium RAI, Turin, from 6th to 10th September 1952
Appendix: Maria Callas: ‘Three arias’
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma ‘Casta Diva’
I Puritani ‘O rendetemi speme…Qui la voce sua soave’. ‘Vien diletto’
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde Liebestod’
Recorded for Cetra on 9th, 10th and 8th of September, respectively, 1949
Bargain Price
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110302-04 (3CDs 54.04+76.46+59.17 min)


For their third Callas re-issue in January 2004, Naxos Historical has chosen the diva’s first recording of La Gioconda, re-mastered from the original Cetra LPs by Ward Marston. Cetra had contracted Callas to record three operas before Walter Legge signed her up to an exclusive contract with the Columbia (Angel in the USA) label in July 1952. Cetra in fact recorded only two operas under their contract, this Gioconda and La Traviata, both made in September 1952. It would be interesting to know if a title was agreed for the third opera and the reason why the contract was never fulfilled. Cetra had built up an enviable, and unequalled, operatic catalogue at that time, and aware of Callas’s burgeoning international career it was unlike them to miss such an obvious commercial opportunity.

Callas only ever sang the part of Gioconda thirteen times on stage. These included her Italian operatic debut, at Verona in 1947, reprised with the tenor and conductor of this recording in 1952. The demanding and highly complex character of the eponymous heroine requires just the skills that the diva evinced in abundance in this period of her career. She recorded the part again, with the same conductor, in 1959. Many Callas cognoscenti contend that in this later recording, despite manifest vocal shortcomings, her interpretation is more vivid than found here. That is as maybe; I find this first recording, with her voice fresh and generally even, some movement between registers in ‘Suicidio’ apart (CD 3 tr. 3), to be preferable. Her singing is tender, passionate and fiery, as the interpretation variously demands, its totality constituting a formidable portrayal.

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 a work packed with melody and motif. It is a great help in this recording that the cast, Callas apart, are native Italians as are the chorus, reinforcing their contribution as idiomatic and involved protagonists. Of the other soloists Fedora Barbieri as Laura is outstanding. Destined to succeed the great Ebe Stignani as the greatest Italian dramatic mezzo of her generation, Barbieri’s pure, even and resonant tone has graced many recordings. Her vocal strengths are heard to the full in this recording. The Laura-Gioconda duet, ‘L’amo come il fugor’ (CD 2 tr. 10), when both declare their love for Enzio, is a highlight of the performance. As the lusting Barnaba, Silveri, much admired in London, is vivid and characterful with plenty of colour in his voice (CD 1 TR. 13), whilst Neri, as Alvise, is dark-toned, slightly dry and perhaps lacking the sonority of other interpreters on disc (CD 2 trs. 14-15 and 20-21). Regretfully, there is a major vocal problem to be found in the Enzo of Gianni Poggi. His dry-toned, effortfully phrased ‘Cielo e mar’ (CD 2 tr. 4) is not a thing of vocal beauty as conveyed by Bergonzi and Pavarotti on their recordings or rendered by Gigli and Björling on recital discs. He is a dull dog lacking any semblance of legato as he tries to re-assure an anxious Gioconda (CD 2 tr. 6).

In my review of the new recording issued by EMI in 2003 and featuring Domingo as Enzio I discuss at some length other recordings of this opera. However, only Warner-Fonit’s own re-issue of this performance is at budget price. Whilst they presumably had access to the original masters, I find no great disadvantage.. The sound here is well balanced with the voices forward in a clear acoustic although there is an odd lack of focus (CD 2 trs. 8-9). The balance in favour of the voices is advantageous when the orchestra is merely supportive under Votti’s rather flaccid baton.

The appendix, of three arias performed by Callas, is particularly interesting, not least in the sequence of recording the two bel canto arias after the Wagner. The demands of the latter may well account for some lack of body in Callas’s ‘Casta diva’ (6:30 of CD 3 tr.13). It is certainly not her best performance of the aria on disc. Enthusiasts can also compare the ‘Puritani’ aria with that on the Naxos remastering of her 1953 abridged recording of the work and reviewed by me elsewhere on this site.

There is generous tracking to each disc and an extensive track-related synopsis as well as artist profiles and a brief note on Ponchielli and the composition of Gioconda. Those wanting to hear Callas in as near pristine voice as she was ever found on record will find much interest and enjoyment here. Pity about the tenor though.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Christopher Howell


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