Article by Hugh Canning
“I cannot say that the Covent Garden repertory has been reinforced by La Gioconda, a mere instance of the mischief which great men bring upon the world when small men begin to worship them. Shakespear (sic) set all the dramatic talent in England wasting itself for centuries on bombast and blank verse…and Verdi is tempting many a born quadrille composer of the South to wrestle ineffectually with Shakespear and Victor Hugo.” The plot of La Gioconda is a potent admixture of carnage and carnevale, with lashings of sex, torture and a dash of religion. The objects of Bernard Shaw’s de haut en bas scorn – in his guise as music critic of The World, review of November 5, 1890 – are the composer Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) and his most celebrated opera, La Gioconda, premiered at La Scala, Milan 14 years earlier and ever since a resounding success in the Latin world and North America, but a rarity in Northern European climes. Shaw’s withering judgement that “Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and even Marchetti’s Ruy Blas [other then-famous operatic adaptations of Victor Hugo] are better than [Ponchielli’s] far more elaborate setting of Angelo.” The source for La Gioconda’s libretto by the thinly disguised Tobia Gorrio – an anagram of Arrigo Boito, the composer of Mefistofele, a flop at La Scala in 1868, and the future co-author of Verdi’s Otello of 1887 and Falstaff of 1893 – was Hugo’s Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, which had already been adapted operatically by Rossi for Saverio Mercadante’s most successful stage-work, Il giuramento (The Oath) at La Scala in 1837. Both Rossi and Boito gave Hugo’s original radical makeovers, shifting the location of the action and changing the names of all the characters. In the case of La Gioconda, an opera conceived on the grandest Meyerbeerian scale, a new character was introduced, that of the titular singer’s blind old mother, La Cieca, who is mentioned only in Hugo’s melodrama, but becomes the catalyst of the dramatic confrontation between the heroine and her lustful tormentor, the spy Barnaba. In Boito’s adaptation, La Cieca recalls both Verdi’s Azucena in Il trovatore – both are threatened with burning as a witch – and, even more so, Fidès, the powerful matriarch in Meyerbeer’s grand Guignol dramatisation of the Anabaptist atrocities in Munster, Le Prophète.
Boito transferred the action of the play from Padua, where Angelo is the Governer for the Venetian Republic, to Venice itself, exploiting the Janus-face of La serenissima with its murky, desolate alley-ways – ideal locations for murder and mayhem – and its flamboyant public spaces, enlivened by the anarchic spirit of the masquerade, the perfect cover for illicit sexual encounters and incognito spies and informers. The plot of La Gioconda is a potent admixture of carnage and carnevale, with lashings of sex, torture and a dash of religion, which may explain both the withering judgement of Shaw and his fellow Victorians and the sensationalism of the post-Verdian “New School” of Italian composers: the worlds of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and above all, of Puccini’s Tosca derive their lurid thrills from the model of Ponchielli’s most successful opera.
The neglect of La Gioconda in Northern Europe, and particularly in this country, is symptomatic of the mixture of puritanical piety and sheer snobbery which, until recently, condemned Puccini as a populist and, therefore, unworthy of serious consideration. Certainly Ponchielli was no Puccini. One does not have to agree with Shaw’s snooty view that its “choruses and ballets…would be more congruously placed among the strings of Chinese lanterns at the French Exhibition” or that its dramatic music is “conventional, short-winded, full of used-up phrases thinly disguised by modulations that are getting staler and staler, every year and will soon stir nobody’s pulse.”
Ponchielli’s music may be backward-looking compared to that of his older contemporary Verdi, but La Gioconda succeeded in Milan during a period of Verdian drought. Between Aida in 1871 and Otello in 1887 no new Verdi appeared apart from the revised version of Simon Boccanegra (1881 – elaborated with its Grand Opera Council Chamber scene by none other than Boito, the librettist of La Gioconda). None of Ponchielli’s earlier operas, including a setting of Manzoni’s seminal novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1856) and I Lituani (The Lithuanians, 1874, to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the author of the text for Aida) met with any lasting success. Nor did his attempts to cap the triumph of La Gioconda with Il figuol prodigo (The Prodigal Son, 1880) and another Hugo adaptation, Marion Delorme (1885) contribute too much to his posterity (although the young Mexican tenor, Rolando Villazon has just released a recording of the tenor’s big aria from Il figluol prodigo).
Nonetheless, there are good reasons for La Gioconda’s tenacious hold on at least the fringes of the repertory. Ironically, one of them is its brilliant ballet music, the Dance of the Hours, which today owes its popularity perhaps more to its association with ostrich and hippo ballerinas and dashing alligator villains in Walt Disney’s cult classical music film Fantasia than to its interpolation as Alvise Badoaro’s festive entertainment in La Gioconda at the point in the opera when he is planning his wife’s exposure as an adultress and murder. This delectable orchestral music, arguably the finest ballet score written by an Italian composer, has enjoyed a life of sorts as a concert item – alas, less so today, than during its heyday, the middle decades of the 20th century – but it still surfaces regularly on record as Ponchielli’s unchallenged miniature masterpiece. It is another irony that its presence in the score of La Gioconda has all but banished the opera from the repertoires of all but the most lavishly funded opera houses. Until Opera Holland Park’s staging –which includes the most famous music from the score – only Opera North has staged La Gioconda in this country in living memory: for the practical considerations of a touring company, the Dance of the Hours had to be cut. Otherwise, La Gioconda has only been heard here in concert performances – both English National Opera and the Royal Opera have presented it thus since 1999 – which makes these performances all the more welcome.
It is not only for the Dance of the Hours that Ponchielli’s score is memorable and eminently revivable, however. Each of the six principal characters have grateful music to sing and the arias of the soprano, ‘Suicidio’, and tenor, ‘Cielo e mar’, have become show-stoppers and recorded best-sellers. More beautiful than both, in my view, is the solo La Cieca sings to launch the big Act One ensemble when Donna Laura, Alvise’s wife, has rescued her from the baying mob and – for the time being at least – from the clutches of the Inquisition and its chief spy, Barnaba: it begins with an arioso, ‘Voce di donna o d’angelo’ (Voice of a woman or angel) and broadens into a melody which is neither “short-winded” – in Shaw’s damning phrase – nor stale: it supplies the opera with the ‘Rosary’ motif emblematic of the blind old woman’s Christian goodness, the dramatic antipode of Barnaba’s satanic evil.
The characters may be drawn from the stock of 19th century Italian archetypes but they are vividly drawn by Ponchielli and Boito and have attracted some of the greatest singers of Italian opera of the 20th century, Ponselle, Milanov, Callas and Tebaldi, Caruso, di Stefano, Pavarotti and Domingo (the only star singer I have seen on stage in the part, in Berlin in the 1980s, in a production by Filippo Sanjust which replicated the sets of the original La Scala production). It is these characters which still do indeed stir the pulse in modern revivals – is there a more exciting soprano-mezzo spat in all opera than Gioconda’s and Laura’s Anything-You-Can-Sing-I-Can-Sing-Louder tussle over their beloved Enzo? – and make La Gioconda one of the most pleasurable of Italian operatic rarities.
Hugh Canning writes about opera and classical music in The Sunday Times.