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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 - 1886)
La Gioconda
Violeta Urmana (soprano) - La Gioconda; Luciana d’Intino (mezzo) - Laura Adorno; Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass) - Alvise Badoero; Elisabetta Fiorillo (contralto) - La Cieca; Plácido Domingo (tenor) - Enzo Grimaldo; Lado Atanelo (baritone) - Barnaba; Paolo Battaglia (bass) - Zuàne/A singer; Kristian Benedikt (tenor) - Isèpo; Tim Hennis (bass) - A pilot; Wolfgang Klose (bass) - A monk
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Kinderchor, Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Marcello Viotti
rec. 22 July - 2 August 2002, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
WARNER CLASSICS 7359652 [3 CDs: 53:49 + 55:08 + 59:42]

La Gioconda has been rather frequently recorded during the last eighty years. The first one, in 1931, featured Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Ebe Stignani (available on Naxos). Then there was a delay of more than twenty years until Cetra recorded it in Torino under Antonino Votto with Maria Callas and Fedora Barbieri. RCA Victor assembled a starry cast in 1957 with Zinka Milanov, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Leonard Warren and Rosalind Elias, conducted by Fernando Previtali in Rome. The same year Decca set it down in Florence with Gianandrea Gavazzeni at the helm and Anita Cerquetti, Mario Del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato and Cesare Siepi. Two years later EMI went to La Scala and re-recorded Callas in stereo, the little-known Pier Miranda Ferraro as Enzo Grimaldo, Piero Cappuccilli, Fiorenza Cossotto and Ivo Vinco. This one was regarded by many as the supreme version at the time and praise was heaped not least on the young Cossotto. Decca made a new version in 1967 with Lamberto Gardelli conducting, and Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill and Marilyn Horne. A fine reading though Tebaldi was slightly past her best. It was Decca’s turn again, in 1980, with Bruno Bartoletti as maestro and Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Agnes Baltsa and Nicolai Ghiaurov in the leading roles. Hungaroton recorded quite a lot of Italian repertoire in the 1980s and with Giuseppe Patané at the helm the cast looked promising: Eva Marton, before her vibrato became a wobble, Giorgio Lamberti, an excellent but under-recorded tenor, Samuel Ramey and, once again, Sherrill Milnes. This was in 1986 but there was one tenor missing: Plácido Domingo. He had already recorded practically every standard role in the repertoire, except Enzo Grimaldo. In 2002 EMI felt ready to feature him in a new recording. Was it a bit late? After all he was past 60. Not having heard this recording when it was new I was just as curious to find out. So let’s go.
The story takes place in Venice in the 17th century and, in a nutshell, it revolves around La Gioconda, a singer, who loves her mother so much that when her rival for the heart of Enzo Grimaldo, saves her mother’s life, Gioconda puts aside her own romantic love to repay her. The villain Barnaba, tries to seduce Gioconda, but she prefers death. Thus Wikipedia’s brilliant résumé. The libretto is a good one, by Tobia Gorrio, which is an anagram for Arrigo Boito, himself a good composer and the one who produced the superb librettos for Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff. Commentators have wondered what Verdi could have done with the La Gioconda libretto. Probably with a lot more experience and greater maturity it might have become another masterpiece. Still Ponchielli’s version is also a minor masterpiece and the only Italian opera contemporary with Verdi’s mature works that is regularly played today. Boito’s Mefistofele is a runner up, though.
In its own right La Gioconda is well crafted and dramatically apt and has many memorable scenes. The prelude is certainly a fine piece with its slow cello melody, dramatic contrasts and skilful scoring. This also goes for the prelude to act IV, with beautifully played clarinet solo, and the ballet in act III: Dance of the Hours which is light and airy. The Andante poco mosso is as sweet as any Strauss waltz, while the Allegro vivacissimo out-Offenbachs Offenbach. We must not forget the many important choruses in this opera: the opening chorus of the first act has drive and power, the Carneval! Baccanal! near the end of the act is swift, elegant, and powerful with forward movement and so on. All over the choral singing and the playing of the Munich forces is beyond reproach.
The soloists are more of a mixed bag. The villain in this drama, Barnaba, is an Iago-like character and he is well sung and acted by Lado Ataneli, manly, strong and steady. His big aria O monumento! (CD 1 tr. 14) is gloriously sung. He is brilliant in the second act Pescator, affonda l’esca (CD 2 tr. 3). Roberto Scandiuzzi is an authoritative but shaky Alvise, and oh how I miss the strong and steady Giulio Neri on the first Callas recording, which was the one I learnt the opera through, or Ivo Vinco on the second Callas. Scandiuzzi is expressive and nuanced in the act III aria Là turbini e farnetichi (CD 2 tr. 18) - but so wobbly. It’s a terrible pity, since he makes so much of this wonderful aria, which is one of the highlights in this opera. Domingo has retained the glorious ring in his tone but he has to work harder to achieve it. Still he is very good in the duet with Barnaba (CD 1 tr. 11-12) and his entrance in act II, Sia gloria ai canti dei naviganti! (CD 2 tr. 4) is superb. When he reaches his great solo, Cielo e mar (CD 2 tr. 5) he sings it with his usual conviction and intensity. He can’t match the ease of delivery from his first recital disc more than thirty years earlier, but in the following scene with Laura, Deh! non turbare con ree paure (CD 2 tr. 7) he is youthfulness personified and is partnered by the lovely Luciana d’Intino. We are treated to commendably beautiful pianissimo from both singers at the end of the scene. Laura has her own great moment in Stella del marinar! (CD 2 tr. 10). She can’t efface the memory of Cossotto, nor for that matter Barbiere or Simionato, but she isn’t far behind. La Cieca is an old woman, but that doesn’t excuse the wobbly tone. Voce di donna (CD 1 tr. 10) is sung with good feeling for nuances, but again the wobble bereaves the aria of the nobility. Lithuanian Violeta Urmanahas enjoyed a successful international career as both mezzo and soprano and her sizeable dramatic voice makes her an excellent Gioconda. She has heft to match strong-voiced singers like Domingo and Ataneli - the final confrontation with Barnaba (CD 3 tr. 17-19) is a dramatic high-spot - but to hear her in all her glory Suicidio! (CD 3 tr. 12) is unbeatable. This aria has for me been synonymous with either of Callas’s recordings but Urmana is also magnificent.
As so often it is my first recording of a work that I tend to return to. The early Callas set was sonically horrible on my LPs but I got used to them. The latest incarnation on Alto is surprisingly clean. However it is still in mono and to get the most out of a recording of this opera stereo is a must. The second Callas, the Tebaldi, the Caballé and the present reissue are my prime choices. None of them is flawless but all of them give a very good picture of the work.
Göran Forsling