AmilcarePonchielli (1834 -1886)
A lyric drama infour acts to a libretto by Tobia Gorrio (Arrigo Boito) after Victor Hugo's playAngelo, tyran de Padoue
The grandest ofgrand operas, La Gioconda would seem to contain all the elements neededfor ongoing popular appeal, yet it has maintained a prominent place in therepertoires of only a few of the world's major opera houses. The works of Verdiand Puccini (Ponchielli's pupil in composition at the Milan Conservatory) haveusually overshadowed this neglected masterpiece and it is easy, thoughmistaken, to regard it as a less than excellent opera. The action takes placein seventeenth century Venice, the most romantic possible setting; theplot is laced with intrigue, betrayal, sacrifice and, of course, love, both requitedand unrequited; its score abounds with atmospheric melody, stirring numbers forchorus and perhaps the most famous opera ballet ever composed. All that remainsis 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 linkthat the records were made in Milan, the city of the opera's premiere in 1876.
Each of theprincipals was on top vocal form at the time this recording was made, and hadbenefited from being part of the great ensemble established at La Scala byToscanini, following his appointment as artistic director in 1920. Whilst notconducted by the maestro, the records surely convey something of the influencehe exerted on his singers during his regime.
Arangi-Lombardi'sis perhaps the most beautifully sung - as opposed to most dramatic - Giocondaof any complete recorded version. Her vocal security is always exciting; hearthe final pages of Act 2, first the duet with Laura followed by Enzo'srejection. From full floods of fury at her rival in love she softens to amelting 'Son la Gioconda' as she sends Laura to safety. With Alessandro Grandaon equally good form, the closing moments of the act crackle with Italianpassion (the orchestra well recorded here, too). The great Act IV aria'Suicidio' is sung as a true soliloquy, more introspective than on many familiarrecordings. Always the voice reveals its mezzo origins, rich and wonderfullycoloured, heard also to good effect in the additional arias included on CD3.
The duet from Ernani offers the best dramatic performance -recorded in asympathetic acoustic, too - 'Casta Diva' is cool but elegant, 'Com'e bello!' from Lucrezia Borgia finely poised. Theseextra tracks show Arangi-Lombardi to advantage in some of the roles that shedid not record complete.
Alessandro Grandadisplays a combination of lyricism and ardour far more frequently encountered inhis own time than in ours. His delivery is forthright and assured without anysense of strain. Occasionally intrusive aspirates and emotional gulps spoil hissmoothness of line but Granda brings Enzo vividly to life (try his Act 2 duetwith 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 heroicform, confident in his phrasing and ending with an appealing' Ah vien'. Hissinging is too little remembered these days, unfairly, for he was, as the musiccritic Herman Klein averred, 'the possessor of a remarkably fine tenor voice'.
Although not yetthirty when these records were made, Stignani already displays the grand stylefor which she later became well known; no aggression here, little of thefuriously jealous rival in love, but a beautifully sung and controlledperformance of Laura. She fills the phrases with generously warm tone, matchingGioconda point for point in their duet, which in other 'hands' can becomemerely a shouting match, and her vocal colour contrasts effectively withArangi-Lombardi's. Gaetano Viviani, not a singer whose reputation has survivedto our generation, distinguishes himself in this more famous company. Hisincisive baritone remains clearly focussed at volume and stands out well in hisensembles; 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!' - veryexciting. Barnaba is very much a brother under the skin to Verdi's Iago.
So here indeedare four excellent singers who bring La Gioconda vividly to life. Thesound quality of the early recording does not always do them full justice, but theenergy of their performance springs vigorously across seventy years; the operacould hardly want more persuasive advocates.
GianninaArangi-Lombardi began her career in Rome as a mezzo in1920 but four years later, after further study, emerged again as a soprano,making her second debut in Milan. Born near Naples in 1891, Arangi-Lombardiwas one of the most admired 'classical-style' sopranos of her day, basing hercareer at La Scala; she appeared in South America and throughout Europe (but neverat Covent Garden) in a number of spinto roles and her portrayals of LucreziaBorgia, Aida and La Gioconda were specially successful In retirementshe taught in Milan and Turkey and died in Italy in 1951.
AlessandroGranda, a native of Callao in Peru, was born in 1898. After an enthusiastic reception for ills first performancesat Lima's Forero Theatre he trained in Milan and made his European debut in Mascagni's Iris in1927. Selected by Toscanini for the Italian premiere of Kodaly's PsalmusHungaricus, 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 USAin the 1930s he returned to Italy, retiring after the war to Peru, where he died in 1962.
Ebe Stignani wasborn in Naples in 1903, made her operatic debut there atthe age of 22 and triumphed as one of the world's leading dramatic mezzos untilher retirement in 1958. Toscanini engaged her for La Scala in 1926, after whichshe sang extensively throughout Italy and Europe. Visits to the Americas both before and after the war consolidated her supremacy in nineteenth centuryItalian opera, whilst her repertoire also included roles by Gluck, Wagner andBizet. Stignani is particularly remembered for her performances in Norma
with Callas at Covent Garden and elsewhere. She died in 1974.
The shadowy figureof Lorenzo Molajoli is a mystery in the annals of opera. Nothing seems to beknown of his career other than that he conducted many recordings in the 1920sand 1930s, mostly for Columbia in Milan. From the evidence of those discs (this La Gioconda an excellentexample) he was clearly a very competent musician, experienced at handlinglarge orchestral and vocal forces - and yet where? One might be tempted to guessthat his was the nom de disque of another celebrated conductor who couldnot, for contractual reasons, be named. Shall we ever know?