[…] 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).
Dance of the Hours
The “Dance of the Hours” (Danza della ore) is a complete and self-sufficient musical statement of roughly ten minutes’ duration forming the core of the spectacular second scene of Act 3, where Alvise unveils the body of his supposedly dead wife Laura to the assembled guests in his private ballroom. It was composed well before La Gioconda itself and merely reworked to suit its new operatic setting. Its worldwide fame likewise preceded that of the opera, dating from 1878 when the ballet music created a storm at the Paris World Exhibition. Although universally translated as “Dance of the Hours,” the “ore” of the title actually refer to the four Horae, the Greek goddesses who regulated the flow of time, and the ballet thus fits naturally into Italy’s longstanding tradition of allegorical spectacle. Accordingly, it is divided into four sections representing the four parts of the day: dawn, day, evening, and night. Later the ballet was extracted from the opera and choreographed separately or performed in concert, in which form it became virtually the quintessence of light classical music – and the butt of countless parodies. Among its notable choreographers were Marius Petipa (St. Petersburg, 1883) – a classic version still revived today – as well as George Balanchine (Monte Carlo, 1929; New York, 1937) and Léonide Massine (Milan, 1952). It also served as an international vehicle for Anna Pavlova (1915-), who took the “Dance of the Hours” on her many world tours, making it a byword for the Russo-French tradition of classical ballet. But perhaps most famously it supplied the music for Preston Blair’s brilliant ballet parody in the animated film Fantasia (1940), where it was danced by ostriches, alligators, elephants, and pink-tutued hippopotami.
Cast of Characters
La Gioconda, a ballad singer (soprano)
La Cieca, her blind mother (contralto)
Alvise Badoero, a head of the State Inquisition (bass)
Laura, his wife (mezzo-soprano)
Enzo Grimaldi, a Genoese nobleman (tenor)
Barnaba, a spy of the Inquisition (baritone)
Zuàne, a boatsman (bass)
Isèpo, a public scribe (tenor)
A pilot (bass)
Monks, senators, sailors, shipwrights, ladies, gentlemen, populace, masquers, guards, etc.
(translated from vol. 5 of Pipers Enzyklopädie des Musiktheaters)
Venice, 17th century
Before the curtain rises: Enzo Grimaldi, Prince of Genoa, is in love with Laura, and she with him, but for political reasons Laura has been forced to marry Alvise Badoero, a leader of the State Inquisition. Enzo thereupon becomes engaged to La Gioconda, a street singer who is passionately in love with him. But he cannot forget Laura; banished from Venice, he lives there incognito under an assumed name, planning to abduct her.
Act 1, “The Lion’s Mouth”; a courtyard of the Doge’s palace, festively decorated. It is midday in spring: Townsfolk and sailors, content with the brute rule of the Venetian state as long as it offers them food and entertainment, set out for the traditional regatta. Barnaba, a ballad singer, but more importantly a spy for the Inquisition, is burning with passion for La Gioconda. He watches her as she leads her blind mother to church, but blocks her path as soon as she leaves her mother’s side in search of Enzo. Horrified, La Gioconda rebuffs Barnaba’s advances and rushes off. Meanwhile the populace celebrate the victor of the regatta. Barnaba inflames the loser Zuàne and the crowd by claiming that La Gioconda’s mother is a witch who cast a spell on Zuàne’s boat. The people are quickly outraged; even Enzo and La Gioconda, now returned, are powerless against them. Only with the appearance of Alvise, the figurehead of state power, and especially the pleas of Laura, concealed behind a mask, is La Gioconda’s mother spared from lynch justice. In gratitude she gives Laura her rosary. All enter the church, leaving only Enzo and Barnaba behind. Barnaba boldly informs Enzo that he has seen through his disguise and knows his intentions, that he hates him but nevertheless wants to help him. Enzo should wait for Laura at night on his ship. Having been utterly spurned, Barnaba’s passion for La Gioconda has turned into blind hatred. He now wants to show her living proof of Enzo’s faithlessness and to hand both Enzo and Laura over to the Inquisition. But La Gioconda overhears Barnaba informing Alvise of his wife’s plans to elope with Enzo that very night. While Barnaba revels in his new-found power and the townsfolk celebrate Carnival, La Gioconda clings to her mother and seeks her help, deeply distraught by what she has heard.
Act 2, “The Rosary”; the shore of an uninhabited island in the lagoon near Fusina. It is night: Barnaba has engineered Laura’s escape. The mariners on Enzo’s ship are ready to put out to sea, and Enzo is waiting for his beloved Laura, who appears at last and sinks blissfully into his arms. While Enzo makes his final preparations for their departure La Gioconda enters, intent on revenge. At first she wants to kill Laura, but desists when she sees Alvise approaching, deciding to leave Laura to his even crueler vengeance. Then she notices her mother’s rosary in Laura’s hands and recognizes her as her mother’s rescuer. Her mind changes instantaneously, and she gives Laura her mask, allowing her to escape. Torn between an urge to self-sacrifice, a desire for vengeance, and love for Enzo, La Gioconda tries once again to win Enzo’s heart. Seeing Alvise’s henchmen approaching, she finally warns him to flee. But he refuses to do so and instead sets fire to his ship. It goes up in flames, and he swims ashore to safety.
Act 3, “Ca‘ d’Oro”; Scene 1, a room in the Ca‘ d’Oro. It is evening: With Laura’s infidelity now exposed, Alvise resolves that she shall die amidst the Carnival festivities. Laura’s promise to abandon Enzo and her pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears. While musicians play a serenade outside the house, he shows her the catafalque he has prepared for her and orders her to drink a flask of poison before the serenade is over. Then he leaves her to her doom. La Gioconda enters. Her plan – despite the yearnings of her heart – is to exchange the poison for a sleeping potion that will only make Laura seem dead, thereby rescuing her and uniting her with Enzo. Alvise believes that his wife has perished. Scene 2, a magnificent room of state: At the height of the masquerade Barnaba appears with La Gioconda’s mother and again accuses her of witchcraft. While she explains that she was praying for the woman who just passed away, the death knell is heard. Alvise orders the dazed throng to continue their revels as if nothing had happened. But Barnaba has told Enzo in a whisper that the death knell tolls for Laura. Enzo accosts Alvise and discloses his true identity. Alvise summarily hands him over to Barnaba. La Gioconda, fearing for Enzo’s life, promises Barnaba that she will yield to him if he will release Enzo. In the general confusion Alvise unveils to his guests the dead body of Laura, proud to have punished her for her infidelity. Enzo rushes at him, but is overpowered and led away.
Act 4, “The Orfano Canal”; alleyway and antechamber of a ruined palace on the Giudecca. It is night: Two men carry the seemingly lifeless Laura to La Gioconda, who is worried by her mother’s absence and dispatches the men in search of her. She herself has resolved to put an end to her life, but once again she falls prey to conflicting feelings: she wants Laura’s death and Enzo’s compassionate love. Enzo arrives, horrified that La Gioconda has freed him for a life that no longer has any meaning for him after Laura’s death. Learning that La Gioconda has brought Laura to this place – and still believing her to be dead – his rage is so great that he tries to kill La Gioconda, who longs for nothing more than death at his hands. But before things come to this pass, Laura awakes and calls the name of Enzo. La Gioconda bestows her blessing on the couple and shows them the path to freedom. Left alone, she contemplates her own death, but is held back by concern for her mother. As she tries to leave the house to escape Barnaba, who should appear but Barnaba himself, demanding his reward. La Gioconda stabs herself. As she lies dying, Barnaba screams into her ear that he has killed her mother.
Bradford Robinson, 2007