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CD: Immortal Performances

Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (1876) [203:42]
La Gioconda - Zinka Milanov
Laura Adorno – Bruna Castagna
Alvise Badoero – Nicola Moscona
La Cieca – Anna Kaskas
Enzo Grimaldo – Giovanni Martinelli
Barnaba – Carlo Morelli
Zuane – Wilfred Engelman
Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Ettore Panizza
rec. 30 December 1939. broadcast. AAD. Mono.
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1012-3 [3 CDs: 69.21 + 57.57 + 76.24]

Experience Classicsonline

This is a very enjoyable recording. The cast is one to die for and - wonder of wonders! - the sound is really good for its time. It’s neither filtered nor boomy and the sound of the orchestra is crisply put across. The booklet is an improvement on many historic reissues with lots of cue points and an interesting essay specific to this performance. There are biographies regarding the artists as well. The product overall makes the best of first impressions and happily the recording proves to be far better than the norm.

Like so many operas La Gioconda benefits from being recorded live. The numerous asides and confrontations which can seem stagey – even risible - in the studio come alive quite surprisingly in the theatre in front of an audience.

The voices sound mellow in the 1939 theatre acoustic. At times in the 1957 studio version starring Zinka Milanov I sensed a lack of feeling, for instance when Gioconda tells her mother ‘I will go to see my beloved’ (‘Io vado a rintracciar l’angelo mio’). There is a lot more youthful expression in this live set. You can hear this in the legato of ‘… vado a rintracciar …’ and in the wholly appropriate swell of emotion on ‘l’angelo mio’. Milanov is in youthful voice and although she was in energised form in the studio this live recording is even finer if not quite so carefully detailed.

You can put much of the improvement down to pacing and a sense of the excitement being carried on through the drama – Panizza conducts as you imagine Toscanini must have done in his prime. There is nothing mechanical about the direction and the orchestra play well under him. The live sound has more depth and variety than was evident in studio recordings from this time – for example Gigli’s HMV sets - while background noise is not too distracting. I should note that Belen Amparan’s La Cieca is really dramatic on the 1957 studio recording and is not quite matched here by Kaskas.

Another example of the live setting aiding the drama is when Barnaba confronts Gioconda, barring her way, in Act One. Carlo Morelli sounds properly amorous/lecherous and Gioconda’s rebuke is more sharply etched before an audience. Her high note may not be as pretty as elsewhere but it is certainly spectacular.

In comparison, in her stereo studio recording Milanov and Leonard Warren at times sound rather hammy. Listen for example to Gioconda’s squeal of fright ‘Che?’ (‘Who is it?’) and also when Warren gives a rather forced ‘evil cackle’ looking at La Cieca. The result is disappointing. Generally Warren proves himself a more able actor than Sherill Milnes (Decca) or the very young Piero Cappuccilli (EMI) in the famous studio recordings. Milanov’s sound is very beautiful even this late in her career. However, the live recording certainly represents an improvement in this and many other instances. It proves to be among the most satisfying of all recordings of ‘La Gioconda’.

I have not heard the duet between Barnaba and Enzo in Act 1, ‘Enzo Grimaldi, Principe di Sanafior, che pensi?’ sound nearly so vibrant as this in any studio version. It helps that the two singers are of the exalted quality of Martinelli and Morelli. Carlo Morelli is terrific as the gleeful Barnaba asking ‘che pensi?’ as he reveals to Enzo that he knows his true identity. Martinelli draws out the phrase ‘Scoperto son’ - ‘I am discovered’ - so that it makes its full effect. That line is frequently thrown away, either sung too quickly or said with a blank expression. Here the phrase is taken at an effective volume which, as an aside to the audience, adds to the drama. ‘Chi sei?’ – ‘Who are you?’ – sounds properly alarmed. Morelli’s reply ‘So tutto’ -‘I know all’- is chilling. There were times when I missed the vibrant voice of Leonard Warren on the 1957 studio recording and live in 1956 at the Met with Milanov but Morelli is pretty marvellous nonetheless. He could have sounded even nastier when he was scornful about Gioconda’s blind mother but he is helped by the propulsion lent by the cut and thrust of the conducting. Warren is not helped that much by Previtali.

A veteran of many seasons at the Met, Martinelli sounds better here than in his near-contemporary recordings such as Verdi’s Otello. He sounds even and vibrant although there are signs at times that the voice is not that of a young man. This can be heard in the occasional gear-changes absent from early recordings. That said, the voice is in fine fettle and is obviously the perfect weight for this role. ‘Cielo e mar’ is phrased more imaginatively than in most complete sets – including Pavarotti (Decca) and Domingo (EMI). Alongside cases such as the superb Giuseppe Di Stefano (Decca) Martinelli has a sturdier voice, better matched to the demands of the part. Milanov, even late in her career, showed that she had the ideal tone for her part as well. Here she is vibrant and interesting if not quite as charismatic and imaginative as she later became. No soprano since Callas or Tebaldi has been so magnetic in the role. Arguably Milanov’s success in the theatre in this role was greater than that of either of these sopranos. Scotto and Caballé fell behind somewhat. Caballé had a most beautiful voice but was rather underwhelming while Scotto was sadly over-parted in her live recordings.

The sound Milanov makes here is not so dark low down in the register as later or compared to the competition but the effects are dramatic and well judged. She is more adept I think at acting the emotions of the part – including a rip-roaring ‘Suicidio’ – than Renata Tebaldi was in the late 1960s after she changed her technique. The voice is in far finer shape than Callas was in her studio recording of 1959 and more even than Callas’s earlier set from 1952 which is wildly dramatic. Cerquetti was an able singer for Decca (1957) but she did not have the instantly recognisable timbre of contemporary protagonists. This is certainly among the best recorded versions of this opera. The background noise is not too intrusive and the recording is a deal better than many live broadcasts twenty years younger.

Overall, this has proven to be an excellent recording of this fine opera. Ettore Panizza is the most electric conductor of La Gioconda on record. It is worth saying over and over that his contribution is terrific.

David Bennett



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