La Gioconda (Vocal Score with Italian libretto)
La Gioconda (Vocal Score with Italian libretto)
(b. Paderno, 31 August 1834 – d. Milan, 16 January 1886)
Information to the opera:
Dramma lirico in four acts (1875-1880)
Libretto by Arrigo Boïto after Victor Hugo’s play Angelo, tyran de Padoue
Asked in 1876 for his thoughts on Italy’s next generation of opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi was at no loss for an answer: “The one who can do the best is Ponchielli; but, alas! he is no longer young.” Verdi’s opinion has withstood the test of time: modern historians now regard Ponchielli as the leading figure in Italian opera (apart, of course, from the inimitable Bear of Busseto himself) between Verdi’s mid-career masterpieces and late nineteenth-century verismo. But no less telling was Verdi’s “alas!”: Ponchielli was indeed no longer young. Shy, kindly, with little of that urge toward self-promotion so essential to success in the theater, Ponchielli spent the largest part of his career as a provincial bandmaster in Piacenza and Cremona – hence his curiously large body of seventy-five compositions and 218 arrangements for wind band. But by the 1870s, following Verdi’s lapse into silence after Aïda (1871) and the success of his own revived Il promessi sposi (1872), Ponchielli was chosen by the great Milanese publishing house of Ricordi to be groomed as the new hope of Italian opera. He was soon brought together with Antonio Ghislanzoni (the celebrated librettist of Aïda) to write an opera on a remote northern European subject. The result, I lituani (“The Lithuanians,” 1874), proved to be an impressive but gloomy and demanding succès d’estime. Chastened by the muted response of the public, Ponchielli retreated into a conservative posture more native to his character:
“I believe that where the Italian public is concerned it’s vital not to make too much of the drama, otherwise you land yourself in rhythms that don’t arrest the attention, and you have to exploit the orchestra, and finally you need the kind of artist whom we don’t have today […] Therefore in my opinion it’s best to stick to the lyrical side even if it means struggling to avoid hackneyed rhythm and accompaniments.”
Ponchielli held closely to these precepts and stuck to the lyrical side, henceforth turning for inspiration to Donizetti and, in his orchestral writing, to Mendelssohn.
For Ponchielli’s next project Ricordi decided to unite the composer with a young literary upstart and theatrical genius named Arrigo Boïto (1842-1918), at that time busy turning out opera librettos under the transparent nom-de-plûme of Tobia Gorrio. Although by nature a radical, Boïto turned his gaze backwards to the grand opéra of Meyerbeer and Scribe and selected, as his starting point, a lurid prose melodrama by Victor Hugo: Angelo, tyran de Padoue (1835). He then proceeded to rework the original almost beyond recognition, drastically downplaying the significance of the title hero, turning a minor character into a supreme operatic villain, transforming Hugo’s prose into supple and imaginative verse, moving the scene of the action from Padua to Venice (with significant opportunities for local color), and finding room for a central ballet destined to go down in history as “The Dance of the Hours.” The cast of characters was boiled down into six major roles embroiled in four unhappy love-relationships, each given ample opportunities for lyric effusion, and the whole surrounded by the historical pageantry, massed choruses, and drastic turns of plot that constitute the raison d’être of French grand opera. It was a brilliant libretto, the precursor to Boïto’s later masterpieces for Verdi (indeed, one of its lines was adopted verbatim in Otello), and it proved ideally suited to Ponchielli’s muse.
This new opera was La Gioconda (“The Street Singer”), whose title also alludes, mysteriously and misleadingly, to the Italian nickname for the Mona Lisa. Ponchielli received the libretto from Boïto in 1874 and began work on the score the following year. The new opera was soon ready for performance, and the première took place at La Scala on 8 April 1876. Although the response of the audience and critics left nothing to be desired, Ponchielli displayed a characteristic unwillingness to release the new opera to the public and subjected it to no fewer than four revisions. The first, mounted at the Teatro Rossini in Venice only a few months later (18 October 1876), featured a new furlana for the first act, a preghiera for Laura in the second, a new aria for Alvise in the third, and a caballetta for Enzo and Barnaba. Still dissatisfied, Ponchielli wrote a new Act 1 finale for a production at Rome’s Teatro Apollo, again only a few months later (23 January 1877). Then the magnificent Act 3 finale was reworked for a staging at the Politeama Genovese in Genoa on 27 November 1879. Finally the definitive version, with various retouchings, was presented at La Scala on 12 February 1880.
This fifth and final version far eclipsed the success of the earlier one heard at La Scala four years previously and launched La Gioconda on a triumphal march through the great opera houses of the world. It was staged in Naples the following year and in Bologna and Santiago de Chile in 1882. In 1883 it was produced in St. Petersburg, London, Barcelona, Budapest, and New York; and by 1884 it had reached Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, and Buenos Aires. It has continued to hold the operatic stage ever since.
In the few years remaining to him Ponchielli tried to repeat the triumph of La Gioconda, but to no avail: his stream of inspired melody had abandoned him, as did his health and self-confidence. He was appointed professor of composition at Milan Conservatory in 1881 – an honor that had eluded him fourteen years earlier – and became in this way the much beloved teacher of the leading lights of the next generation in Italian opera, Puccini and Mascagni. His death in 1886, from tuberculosis, was made an occasion of national mourning in Italy.
La Gioconda has become the only Italian grand opera besides Aïda to remain in the repertoire. It launched Maria Callas’s international career at the Arena di Verona (1947) and has become a special favorite at La Scala. But most of all it is inseparably linked with the New York Met, where it was sung by many of the greatest voices of the twentieth century, from Caruso (1904) and Emmy Destinn (1909) to Benjamino Gigli (1924) and Rosa Ponselle (1925), and thence to Risë Stevens, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Cesare Siepi, Robert Merrill, Renata Tebaldi, Martina Arroyo, Carlo Bergonzi, Plácido Domingo, and many, many others. Outstanding complete recordings are available with Callas (1952), del Monaco and Siepi (1957), Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Marilyn Horne and Robert Merrill (1967), and Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Montserrat Caballé (1981).
Read the preface of the full score > HERE