Ponchielli: La Gioconda

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COMPOSERS: Ponchielli
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: La Gioconda
PERFORMER: Violeta Urmana, Plácido Domingo, Luciana d’Intino, Roberto Scandiuzzi; Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra/Marcello Viotti
CATALOGUE NO: 5 57451 2
Verdi was by far the greater composer, but there is something about Ponchielli’s work, with its open-hearted emotionalism, its vivid contrasts of colour and its on-the-edge melodrama that makes it the quintessence of 19th-century Italian opera. La Gioconda is a lovable piece, more often encountered in Italy and America than in the UK, but often successfully transferred to disc.

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This latest version proves Domingo – in his early sixties – a phenomenon, with only an occasional hint of hardness to set against the ardour of his Enzo. Mezzo-turned-soprano Violeta Urmana also largely convinces that her upwardly mobile voice can deliver the goods: the title role’s range is no problem for her, though her instrument’s overtones still sometimes register as mezzo-like. Luciana d’Intino sings a handsome Laura, and Roberto Scandiuzzi suggests the gravitas of her jealous, noble husband Alvise. Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli needs more snarl and resolve as the demonic spy Barnaba, and Gioconda’s mother La Cieca a more voluminous tone than Elisabetta Fiorillo can provide. But vocally this is a broadly persuasive achievement, if not quite possessing the voltage of the finest of its rivals. Conductor Marcello Viotti also lacks the final degree of theatricality that such a flamboyant score ideally requires: La Gioconda is not a piece for holding back.

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Of previous versions, the Decca set with Caballé and Pavarotti is vivid, but pride of place has to go to the two Callas recordings, of which the second held a particularly high place in the diva’s own affections. George Hall