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Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (1876)
La Gioconda - Anita Cerquetti
Enzo - Mario Del Monaco
Barnaba - Ettore Bastianini
Laura - Giulietta Simionato
Alvise - Cesare Siepi
La Cieca - Franca Sacchi
Zuāne - Giorgio Giorgetti
Isčpo - Athos Cesarini
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. 22 June - 6 July 1957, Florence
ELOQUENCE 4828597 [74:29 + 75:47]

For some reason La Gioconda has never really taken off in this country. It has always been a standard item at the Met, but has only been staged five times at Covent Garden since 1900 (three times with Destinn in 1907 and twice with Ponselle in 1929), though two concert performances were given at the start of the 2004/5 season with Urmana. In the past, it was probably just too full-bloodedly Italian and melodramatic for British taste, but surely we have now moved on from those buttoned-up times. I don’t think anyone would contend that La Gioconda is a great masterpiece, but it has cracking arias for all four principals and the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford duet for Gioconda and Laura in Act 2, and its male equivalent for Enzo and Barnabo in Act 1, have real visceral excitement in decent performances.

The present performance was actually the fourth time that the opera had been recorded in the studio, which is evidence of its popularity outside these islands (the first, in 1931, was recorded when not a single complete Mozart opera had been recorded) and it is still regarded by many as a benchmark. With one exception, the cast represents the standard Decca cast for the Italian repertoire at the time. The exception was Anita Cerquetti, who took the place of the usual Tebaldi. Decca probably thought that in Cerquetti they had a soprano who they would be able to use long-term in the spinto roles which (at least in 1957) were not really Tebaldi’s. Of course, things did not turn out like that, as Cerquetti retired in 1961, aged only 30. Various theories about this have been put forward (vocal nodes, a brain tumour, heart problems, her husband left her), but these were vehemently denied by the singer herself in conversation with Stefan Zucker. According to her, she sacrificed her career for her family. If her birth year is correctly given as 1931, the singer would have been only 26 when this recording was made - I wonder what Cardiff Singer of the World’s resident expert Mary King, who seems to think no-one under about 35 should be singing anything bigger than a Mozart song, would make of that.

The performance, to my ears, is good and undeniably well-sung, but is distinctly under-characterised. The general complaint about the singers in this cast is that they are just loud the whole time, and while there is at least some truth in this, all make definite attempts at subtlety on occasions, but that is not the real problem for me. Often stentorian singing can lead to real, if unmodulated, excitement, but here for much of the performance everyone seems to be more or less on autopilot. There is nowhere near sufficient detailed villainy in Bastianini’s Barnaba; there is little poetry or real momentum in del Monaco’s Enzo; Cerquetti has a thrilling voice, but the emotion is usually generalised. The only place in which the performance really takes fire seems to me to be the Gioconda/ Laura duet in Act 2, which is truly exciting (though the Enzo/Barnaba Act 1 duet also has a fine momentum). If you listen to the really great performances - Callas or Milanov (in 1939) as Gioconda, Martinelli or Bergonzi as Enzo, Merrill or Manuguerra as Barnaba, Cossotto as Laura - then you will never be fully satisfied by this.

I was, however, impressed by Gavazzeni’s conducting. He does all he can to bring excitement and takes the whole thing at quite a lick. This performance is almost 20 minutes shorter than Bartoletti’s with Caballé, Pavarotti, Milnes and Baltsa, which, even given that he opens the two short traditional cuts used by Gavazzeni, is quite a difference. Listen to the excitement he brings to the opening chorus, the authentic roughness of the fishermen’s chorus in Act 2 and the brio of the Furlana at the end of Act 1. The chorus is right with him, giving a real, authentic feel of the opera house.

The recording is admirably clear, but like many mid-50s Deccas is rather shrill. Presentation is very basic, just a track listing and plot summary. Why they have chosen to take a kitsch detail from the box used for the Ace of Diamonds re-issue for the front of the insert is unfathomable. Even in its full form it was completely irrelevant to all but the “Dance of the Hours”; the fragment used here is utterly meaningless.

Paul Steinson

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