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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (1876) [166:10]
Maria Callas (La Gioconda – soprano), Fiorenza Cossotto (Laura – mezzo), Ivo Vinco (Alvise – bass), Pier Miranda Ferraro (Enzo – tenor), Irene Companeez (La Cieca – contralto), Piero Cappuccilli (Barnaba – baritone), Leonardo Monreale (Zuàne – bass), Renato Ercolani (Isèpo, 1st offstage voice – tenor), Aldo Biffi (2nd offstage voice – bass), Bonaldo Gaiotti (Barnabotto)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Antonino Votto
rec. 4-11 November 1959, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
no libretto but notes and detailed synopsis in English, French and German
EMI CLASSICS 3818542 [3 CDs: 52:23 + 37:32 + 76:15]

This is the second Callas recording of La Gioconda. Her first was an early Cetra from 1952. I have reviewed a Naxos transfer of it for this site.
In so far as Callas is the central attraction, her 1952 recording is already fully formed in its psychological penetration yet vocally refulgent. It contains all the qualities for which she was admired while offering little fuel for her detractors. The real Callas decline set in after 1959, but there are already tell-tale signs. The rasping chest-tones are dangerously overdone and the tone sometimes splays out on top notes. As against this she sometimes expresses individual words and phrases even more potently – I am thinking of passing moments rather than the set scenes. Out-and-out admirers might even prefer her later performance for its more “Callassy” – and viscerally exciting – imprint. Those who take this view might take time to compare her singing of the passage shortly before the end where she pretends she wants to go and doll herself up to make herself more presentable to Barnaba. (If you don’t know the story, she’s just buying time to get out the knife with which she then stabs herself to death). In the earlier version her irony has a sort of grotesque delicacy. It’s riveting. By 1959 the delicacy has gone, leaving only the grotesquery. Nonetheless, this is a supreme interpretation either way.
Given this, choice must depend on the rest of the casts. Callas’s other early Cetra set, La Traviata, ditched her by choosing a dud cast and conductor. She was powerless to save it. Here, role by role, I find the earlier cast preferable throughout, if only very marginally except in one case. The conductor is the same both times. I’ll discuss the singers in order of appearance.
Piero Cappuccilli is of course a splendid, firm-toned singer. He was then 30 and in his vocal prime. He made rather a speciality of authoritative priests and the like. But he doesn’t sound nasty enough for Barnaba, one of the most repulsive creatures in all opera. Paolo Silveri was 39 in 1952 and has a slightly older-sounding if rounder voice. Without resorting to caricature he is able to suggest the sliminess of the spy. Since the plot revolves around his vile machinations it is essential to have a singer capable of giving the part its full import.
La Cieca in 1952 was Maria Amadini (1919-1958). Though not especially old, she sounds it. Her voice is not entirely even and she did not have an exceptional career. On the other hand, she uses it creatively to sound plausibly like Gioconda’s blind old mother. Information about Irene Companeez is in short supply but she sounds like a young singer whose voice is still in the richness of its first maturity. The result is that, alongside the older Callas, La Gioconda sounds about twenty years older than her mother. An ungrateful thing to say about such a splendid voice. But when her aria – the famous “Voce di donna o d’angelo” – comes up we find that Companeez can’t actually use her voice to any purpose. She has only one volume – very loud – and no phrasing. She just ploughs through the piece stolidly and unimaginatively. The moment where she gives her rosary to Laura – one of the key moments of the plot and a musical leitmotif of the opera – is quite appallingly insensitive. Interestingly, this is the one point where Votto’s interpretation varies considerably between the two versions. In 1952 he cosseted and supported Amadini with a very slow tempo in which she finds a good deal of expression. In 1959 he evidently despaired of getting any expression out of Companeez and took a much faster tempo. This has far-reaching results. Another key moment of the opera is where, near the end, La Gioconda herself sings this music. Votto in each case insists that it goes at the same tempo as before. So in 1952 Callas is able to fill it with heart-stopping emotion, while in 1959 she has to sing it more plainly.
Googling around for information about Companeez, I find that I myself praised her performance of Marfa in Khovanshchina given for the RAI in the same year. The conductor there was Artur Rodzinski. Evidently a martinet on the rostrum could get something out of her.
Pier Miranda Ferraro (b.1924) appears to be still active as a teacher after a decent career on the stage. His voice is attractive and easily produced, richer in timbre than that of Gianni Poggi who sang in 1952. Yet it is easy to see why Poggi is more remembered, for there is more detail to his phrasing, more character to his words.
Laura in 1959 was the young Fiorenza Cossotto. Now surely EMI must have had a winner there at least. Yes, but Laura in 1952 was the young Fedora Barbieri, so most opera buffs would want to hear both. They are rather different voices, though. Barbieri has the darker voice, with more marked use of the chest register. This in spite of the fact that she maintained she didn’t use it at all and she even threatened to sue a rival singer who said she did. This may be just a question of calling the same thing something else. Still today in Italy there are professors in Italian conservatoires who teach what elsewhere is called the chest register while maintaining it is not the chest register. Anyway, whatever it is, Cossotto mixes it in more gradually as she goes down so that the effect is more a downward extension of her upper register. Her voice is brighter than Barbieri’s and in fact she successfully recorded a selection of soprano arias by Verdi (see review). Personally I tend to find Barbieri a somewhat bullish singer and considering Laura on her own I would prefer Cossotto. However, I think Barbieri fits in better with Callas. Putting Cossotto alongside the older Callas means that the soprano has a darker, chestier voice than the mezzo-soprano. A slightly odd effect.
Ivo Vinco (b.1927), Cossotto’s husband, sung in a number of distinguished opera sets from around this time. It’s an excellent piece of singing, but if you want a smallish part to register as something more important you need a massive vocal presence. Like Cetra’s Giulio Neri, in fact. This is a name that has opera buffs running hotfoot whenever anything of his appears on disc. Neri (1909-1958) had a sadly short life and his career suffered from the fact that he sang below par at a special performance of Norma with Callas in the presence of the President of the Republic. Thereafter La Scala relegated him to comprimario parts, though he was appreciated in Rome and elsewhere. He was a powerful Wagnerian bass and a noted Boris Godunov. We can hear that his massive tones do not always make for easy legato in faster passages, but the music leaps to life in a way it doesn’t quite from Vinco.
Criticism has been made of the fact that almost the entire series of Callas recordings was entrusted to so-called “routinier” conductors. In the present case such criticism seems unwarranted. Antonino Votto (1896-1985) doesn’t get the knife-edge discipline De Sabata got out of this orchestra in his famous Tosca. If you listen to the stereo recording on headphones you will find the two sides of the orchestra often slightly ill-synchronized. However, he is energetic and atmospheric when needed, with a sure sense of pace. As can be seen from the list of alternative recordings below, this is not an opera which has ever tempted the Giulinis, Abbados or Mutis.
Apart from La Cieca’s aria noted above there are no particular differences between the two performances. Slight changes in the pacing probably reflect the needs of particular singers rather than a rethinking of his interpretation. It is possible to find slightly more vitality here and there in 1952. This may be because he was a few years younger, or because the drier Turin acoustic gives that impression. More likely it is because he, Callas and Poggi had given the opera at the Arena of Verona two months earlier and the excitement of the live occasion spilled into the studio. The “suicidio” motif in the introduction to Act 4, for example, gets a whiplash attack to remind us he was a protégé of Toscanini. This is just slightly attenuated in 1959.
Of course, in 1959 you get a stereo recording produced by Walter Legge. But if fine sound is your prime objective you presumably won’t want either of these. The voices are well caught in 1952, though the orchestra is more backward and there is some distortion. I wouldn’t let that sway me. And surprisingly, the older recording sometimes scores over the later one. At the end of the first act, where the noisy Furlana suddenly stops and an off-stage chorus and organ are heard in the cathedral, later joined by La Gioconda’s grief-stricken interjections, the balancing of the elements on the Cetra is likely to make you think, momentarily, that this is one of the most sublime moments in all opera. This sort of thing should have been a Legge speciality, yet the brew is less potent in 1959.
With the exception of Callas, all the singers in the 1959 recording were around thirty, and the impression is that Legge may have been using an opera on the fringe of the repertoire as a test-bed for new singers. He got gold in Cossotto and Cappuccilli, and up to a point in Vinco. But he didn’t quite get a great opera recording. Cetra took the soprano-tenor-conductor triangle from a recent live performance and filled the other parts with the best they could get. That’s the Gioconda to go for. Naxos also have the bonus of three early Callas tracks from 1949 and a note that discusses the performance and the artists. I think that’s the right line with a historical recording. The EMI note just discusses the opera. Both opt for good synopses but no libretto.
Fringe repertoire or not, this work attracted most of the leading singers specializing in the Italian repertoire. The LP era can boast an impressive line-up. But none of them have Callas (see footnote).
Christopher Howell

Footnote - LP era recordings
• Corridori, Campora, Colzani, Cavallari, Corena, Pirazzini/Parodi – Preiser 1952
• Cerquetti, Del Monaco, Bastianini, Simionato, Siepi, Sacchi/Gavazzeni – Decca 1957
• Milanov, Di Stefano, Warren, Elias, Clabassi, Amparan/Previtali – RCA 1958
• Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Merrill, Horne, Ghiuselev, Dominguez/Gardelli – Decca 1967
• Caballé, Pavarotti, Milnes, Baltsa, Ghiaurov, Hodgson/Bartoletti – Decca 1981


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