|About this Recording
8.110112-14 - PONCHIELLI: Gioconda (La) (La Scala) (1931)
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834 -1886)
A lyric drama in four acts to a libretto by Tobia Gorrio (Arrigo Boito) after Victor Hugo's play Angelo, tyran de Padoue
The grandest of grand operas, La Gioconda would seem to contain all the elements needed for ongoing popular appeal, yet it has maintained a prominent place in the repertoires of only a few of the world's major opera houses. The works of Verdi and Puccini (Ponchielli's pupil in composition at the Milan Conservatory) have usually overshadowed this neglected masterpiece and it is easy, though mistaken, to regard it as a less than excellent opera. The action takes place in seventeenth century Venice, the most romantic possible setting; the plot is laced with intrigue, betrayal, sacrifice and, of course, love, both requited and unrequited; its score abounds with atmospheric melody, stirring numbers for chorus and perhaps the most famous opera ballet ever composed. All that remains is to find an excellent cast to do justice to the music, and certainly in this recording (the first made of the complete opera) we have just that. It is a happy link that the records were made in Milan, the city of the opera's premiere in 1876.
Each of the principals was on top vocal form at the time this recording was made, and had benefited from being part of the great ensemble established at La Scala by Toscanini, following his appointment as artistic director in 1920. Whilst not conducted by the maestro, the records surely convey something of the influence he exerted on his singers during his regime.
Arangi-Lombardi's is perhaps the most beautifully sung - as opposed to most dramatic - Gioconda of any complete recorded version. Her vocal security is always exciting; hear the final pages of Act 2, first the duet with Laura followed by Enzo's rejection. From full floods of fury at her rival in love she softens to a melting 'Son la Gioconda' as she sends Laura to safety. With Alessandro Granda on equally good form, the closing moments of the act crackle with Italian passion (the orchestra well recorded here, too). The great Act IV aria 'Suicidio' is sung as a true soliloquy, more introspective than on many familiar recordings. Always the voice reveals its mezzo origins, rich and wonderfully coloured, heard also to good effect in the additional arias included on CD3. The duet from Ernani offers the best dramatic performance -recorded in a sympathetic acoustic, too - 'Casta Diva' is cool but elegant, 'Com'e bello!' from Lucrezia Borgia finely poised. These extra tracks show Arangi-Lombardi to advantage in some of the roles that she did not record complete.
Alessandro Granda displays a combination of lyricism and ardour far more frequently encountered in his own time than in ours. His delivery is forthright and assured without any sense of strain. Occasionally intrusive aspirates and emotional gulps spoil his smoothness of line but Granda brings Enzo vividly to life (try his Act 2 duet with Laura and 'Gia ti veggo' in Act 3). After an uncertain start to 'Cielo e mar' (might this be a technical flaw on the original 78?) he continues in heroic form, confident in his phrasing and ending with an appealing' Ah vien'. His singing is too little remembered these days, unfairly, for he was, as the music critic Herman Klein averred, 'the possessor of a remarkably fine tenor voice'.
Although not yet thirty when these records were made, Stignani already displays the grand style for which she later became well known; no aggression here, little of the furiously jealous rival in love, but a beautifully sung and controlled performance of Laura. She fills the phrases with generously warm tone, matching Gioconda point for point in their duet, which in other 'hands' can become merely a shouting match, and her vocal colour contrasts effectively with Arangi-Lombardi's. Gaetano Viviani, not a singer whose reputation has survived to our generation, distinguishes himself in this more famous company. His incisive baritone remains clearly focussed at volume and stands out well in his ensembles; yet he can caress a malevolent phrase as he spins his web of intrigue. From Act 1 try 'O monumento!' with its challenging final 'Parla!' - very exciting. Barnaba is very much a brother under the skin to Verdi's Iago.
So here indeed are four excellent singers who bring La Gioconda vividly to life. The sound quality of the early recording does not always do them full justice, but the energy of their performance springs vigorously across seventy years; the opera could hardly want more persuasive advocates.
Giannina Arangi-Lombardi began her career in Rome as a mezzo in 1920 but four years later, after further study, emerged again as a soprano, making her second debut in Milan. Born near Naples in 1891, Arangi-Lombardi was one of the most admired 'classical-style' sopranos of her day, basing her career at La Scala; she appeared in South America and throughout Europe (but never at Covent Garden) in a number of spinto roles and her portrayals of Lucrezia Borgia, Aida and La Gioconda were specially successful In retirement she taught in Milan and Turkey and died in Italy in 1951.
Alessandro Granda, a native of Callao in Peru, was born in 1898. After an enthusiastic reception for ills first performances at Lima's Forero Theatre he trained in Milan and made his European debut in Mascagni's Iris in 1927. Selected by Toscanini for the Italian premiere of Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus, Granda sang frequently at La Scala, including Rigoletto with Toti dal Monte. His developing career took him to Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Finland and Egypt. Having visited Chile and the USA in the 1930s he returned to Italy, retiring after the war to Peru, where he died in 1962.
Ebe Stignani was born in Naples in 1903, made her operatic debut there at the age of 22 and triumphed as one of the world's leading dramatic mezzos until her retirement in 1958. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala in 1926, after which she sang extensively throughout Italy and Europe. Visits to the Americas both before and after the war consolidated her supremacy in nineteenth century Italian opera, whilst her repertoire also included roles by Gluck, Wagner and Bizet. Stignani is particularly remembered for her performances in Norma with Callas at Covent Garden and elsewhere. She died in 1974.
The shadowy figure of Lorenzo Molajoli is a mystery in the annals of opera. Nothing seems to be known of his career other than that he conducted many recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly for Columbia in Milan. From the evidence of those discs (this La Gioconda an excellent example) he was clearly a very competent musician, experienced at handling large orchestral and vocal forces - and yet where? One might be tempted to guess that his was the nom de disque of another celebrated conductor who could not, for contractual reasons, be named. Shall we ever know?
Act I The Lion's Mouth
 The Prelude sets the scene in seventeenth-century Venice, the courtyard of the Doge's palace, decked out for a festival. In the background is the Giants' Staircase and the door that leads into St Mark's. On a wall of the courtyard is one of the famous lions' mouths, with an inscription inviting secret denunciations to the state inquisition.  It is a fine spring noon and, people of all kinds are celebrating in the square, some masked and wearing all kinds of costumes. The informer Barnaba leans against a column, watching them. He has a small guitar slung over his shoulder. The signal is given for the gondola race, to which the crowd runs.  Barnaba, alone, reflects that they are singing over their own graves, as the spy spins his web. One he would catch is the singer Gioconda, who enters, leading her blind mother towards the church. Barnaba observes them, planning to catch his butterfly.  Gioconda tells her mother that it is early for Vespers and leaves her to rest, while she seeks her lover, Enzo. As she makes to go, Barnaba comes forward, proposing love, which she indignantly rejects, breaking free with a scream that alarms her mother, who resumes her telling of the beads of her rosary Barnaba sees a chance to use Gioconda's mother to further his designs. The crowd returns, escorting the winner of the race, while the loser, Zuane, stands to one side in dejection. Barnaba approaches Zuane and tells him he has lost because his boat was bewitched by the blind woman and others overhear the accusation Enzo, disguised as a Dalmatian sailor, tries to intervene as the crowd attacks the old woman, seeking her death as a witch. Alvise Badoero, one of the heads of the state inquisition, appears, with his wife Laura, who calls for pity, while her husband questions Barnaba as to the old woman's guilt. Gioconda begs Alvise for mercy for her mother, while Enzo returns with his sailors, resolved to rescue her, Laura recognises Enzo as her beloved Enzo Grimaldo, a Prince of Genoa, and Barnaba notices these signs of recognition between the two of them. Alvise decrees the old woman's release and Barnaba is foiled for the moment.  In gratitude to this voice of an angel that has secured her safety the old woman gives her rosary to Laura, who is about to kneel for the woman's blessing, when Alvise pulls her back and throws a purse to Gioconda, who herself loves Enzo.  The others go into the church leaving Barnaba alone with Enzo, whom he has recognised as Prince of Santafior, an enemy of Venice and, clearly, lover of Laura Enzo may have sworn love to Gioconda but his meeting with Laura has changed matters. Barnaba will connive, it seems, at the meeting of Enzo and Laura on the former's ship in order to break Gioconda's heart at the infidelity of her lover,  Once Enzo has gone, Barnaba, now observed by Gioconda, who has emerged from the church with her mother, calls to the scrivener Isepo to write a letter to Alvise informing him of Laura's planned meeting with Enzo that night.  Barnaba contemplates the Doge's palace, its joy and horror, the old Doge, the Grand Council, but, above them all, the spy. He throws the paper into the Lion's Mouth.  Masqueraders crowd into the courtyard, dancing and singing. Prayers are heard from the church and the people kneel, while Gioconda and her mother pass among them. She is moved by sorrow at what she has overheard, her betrayal by Enzo, and sees her destiny as death or love.
Act II The Rosary
 It is night on Enzo's brigantine Hecate, moored in the Fusina lagoon, by a deserted island. The sailors sing at their work under the light of the setting moon.  Barnaba appears, disguised as a fisherman and accompanied by Isepo. Challenged by the helmsman of the Hecate, he declares himself a fisherman, while assessing the strength of the crew and sending Isepo to put the look-outs in place, He continues to sing his fisherman's song, echoed by some of the crew, before leaving to carry out his plot,  Enzo comes on deck, planning to sail that night and ordering the crew to be ready, The sailors resume their song, When all is ready, he bids them go below.
 Alone, Enzo admires the beauty of the sky and sea, awaiting the appearance of his angel, his beloved Laura.  A boat approaches and Barnaba hails him. Laura boards the ship, falling into Enzo's arms. She is wary, however, of Barnaba.  Enzo tries to calm her fears, telling her that they are about to set sail.  He goes below and Laura kneels in prayer before a statue of the Madonna.  While she seeks a blessing, Gioconda, masked, emerges from her hiding-place under the prow, offering, instead, a curse and declaring herself to be Vengeance on her rival in love.  She seizes Gioconda by the arm, about to strike her with her dagger, only to break off as she sees a boat drawing near, bringing Alvise Laura holds up her rosary in prayer and Gioconda, recognising it, gives her own mask to Laura and drags her quickly to her own boat, after revealing herself as Gioconda. Enzo comes on deck, seeking Laura, only to be told by Gioconda that she has fled in remorse. He suspects a plot but she draws his attention to the danger that approaches, since his name has been revealed to the Grand Council Cannon shots are heard and Enzo, who will never surrender, sets fire to his ship and leaps into the sea, with the name of Laura on his lips, while Gioconda, from the shore, declares her willingness to die with him.
Act III The Ca' d'Oro
 It is evening. The scene is an antechamber in the House of Gold in Venice Alvise resolves on the death of Laura. She escaped his dagger, but now he will use poison.  In the house there will be merry-making that will mask Laura's groans, as she dies, satisfying his honour.  Laura enters at his summons, finely dressed. Alvise makes her sit, while he accuses her and threatens her with death. She is distraught, having had heaven so near and now to suffer this punishment. Alvise drags her towards a curtained doorway and tears back the curtain to reveal a catafalque, on which she is to die  Gioconda has stolen into the room and hides. Voices are heard from the lagoon in song, as Alvise gives his wife a vial of poison, which she must drink before the song ends. He leaves her to her fate. Gioconda emerges from her hiding-place and seizes the vial, replacing it with another, which she urges her to drink. It contains a drug that will give only the semblance of death. Laura eventually drinks the sleeping draught and Gioconda changes the vials so that Alvise, when he looks in again, thinks that Laura has drunk the poison Gioconda comes forward again, having for her mother's sake not only refrained from killing her rival but also having saved her rival for Enzo.
 In an adjoining ballroom, magnificently decorated for the occasion, nobles and masqueraders are received by Alvise and the guests praise the fine House of Gold  He thanks them for their compliments and introduces entertainment for them.  This is the Dance of the Hours, with dancers representing the hours of dawn, of day, of evening and of night  Barnaba drags in the blind woman, whom he accuses of witchcraft within the house, but she declares she was only praying for the dying. The death knell is heard and Enzo, who has gained admission to the house, masked, reveals himself to Alvise, to the horror of Gioconda, who has rushed in. Enzo laments Laura's supposed death and the blind woman inveighs against the informer, who assures her that she shall not escape this time. Gioconda offers herself to Barnaba in return for Enzo's safety. Alvise draws back the curtain that conceals the catafalque and reveals his wife, whom he declares that he has killed Enzo throws himself at Alvise, but is held back by guards, while those present express their horror.
Act IV The Orfano Canal
 The Prelude introduces the entrance of a dilapidated house on the Giudecca. In a corner a screen conceals a bed and through a doorway at the back the water can be seen and the Piazza of San Marco. There is an image of the Madonna and a crucifix on the wall, while on a table stands the vial of poison and a dagger Gioconda has been waiting for the men, singers and friends of hers, who now carry the body of Laura into the house and lay it on the bed. She asks the men, as they leave, to look for her mother, who has disappeared  Gioconda, alone, can only contemplate suicide.  As she brings Enzo and Laura together, nothing is left for her. She looks at the vial of poison, which she will drink, although she is tempted to dispose of Laura. Enzo, released from prison, appears, threatening to kill himself, now that he has lost his beloved Laura and accusing Gioconda of having stolen her body. He threatens her with his dagger.  Laura's voice is heard from behind the screen and she comes forward, revived, eventually recognising Gioconda as the one who has saved her life. The sound of a boat approaching is heard and Gioconda explains her plan for the escape of Laura and Enzo. As she puts her cloak round Laura's shoulders, she sees the rosary given her by Gioconda's mother and begs them sometimes to remember her  Enzo and Laura leave in the boat and Gioconda picks up the vial of poison, but pauses as she remembers her mother, kneeling before the Madonna, whom she begs to ward off Barnaba. He is standing in the alley outside and sees her praying.  As she determines to escape, he stands before her, demanding that she keep her promise. She asks for a moment to make herself more beautiful and starts to put on her stage finery, to Barnaba's delighted anticipation. Turning to him, she stabs herself, giving him her body in death. As she dies, Barnaba shouts in her ear that he has drowned her mother to repay the old woman for her insults. He makes off, in frustrated rage.
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