Ponchielli: La Gioconda

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Ponchielli
LABELS: Warner Fonit
WORKS: La Gioconda
PERFORMER: Maria Callas, Fedora Barbieri, Paolo Silveri, Giulio Neri, Gianni Poggi; RAI SO & Chorus, Turin/Antonino Votto
CATALOGUE NO: 3984-29355-2 ADD mono Reissue (1952)
For a work so neglected in the opera house, Ponchielli’s masterpiece is well served on record. Verdi’s slightly younger colleague has suffered by comparison with the great composer – George Bernard Shaw described La Gioconda as a work with Verdi’s manner but without his substance – yet given the right performers this music can make a strong and thrilling impression. The different Venetian settings for each act also add to the impact of the story of the unhappy and ironically named ballad singer, Gioconda.

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No soprano is more closely associated with the opera than Maria Callas, who recorded it twice and who made her Italian debut in it in 1947. The title role might have been written for her particular gifts, and in this 1952 recording she captures all its conflicting emotions. The tragic soliloquy with which the final act opens shows her verbal acting at its greatest, and if there are moments of wobble they are part of the ‘package’ of Callas in her prime. Her second recording, made seven years later, is more famous, but already less spontaneous. This reissue, the first in Warner’s Fonit opera series, is worth having for Callas and the outstanding Fedora Barbieri as Laura; it also features Gianni Poggi’s exciting but unsubtle account of ‘Cielo e mar!’, and Antonino Votto conducts a sturdy performance. Remastering of sound is good.

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Much more even, although Renata Tebaldi does not get inside Gioconda in quite the same way, is the Lamberto Gardelli recording. Unlike the Callas reissue, it is uncut and comes with translations of the libretto. John Allison