Cher Public

Because she’s happy

LionThere are two kinds of opera lovers: Those who despise or tolerate La Gioconda as a preposterous rip-off of Aida that lingered a century in the repertory in spite of its galumphing story, largely because of the popularity of its tuneful ballet—and true opera lovers. We love every silly note of the thing, and every ridiculous plot device. 

The plot is actually very tight; there’s just one big oops: How does Gioconda know that Alvise is going to order Laura to drink poison, thereby giving Gioconda time to procure an imitation poison? Look: Don’t even think about it. It’s grand opera.

Now that the grand opera companies of the world no longer present La Gioconda (to be fair, they haven’t got the singers to do it justice, the old-fashioned, gutsy “I’ll get that high note if I burst a blood vessel to do it” kind, have they?), we, the true opera lovers, miss it. Handel is good, Cavalli is talented and Glass is promising, but they aren’t Ponchielli.

This situation should affront anyone devoted to Parterre Box and its doyenne, the second Mrs. Tanqu—I mean, La Cieca.

Opera Company of Brooklyn which, its name notwithstanding, operates in the northwesternmost corner of Manhattan, came to the rescue last Saturday night. OCB performs in a large living room, on-book with piano accompaniment but no sets or costumes—or props, and props are so important in La Gioconda: poisons, masks, rosaries, daggers.

The singers get two rehearsals plus a few coaching sessions and the right to say they’ve sung the role, whatever role it is, on the résumé thereafter. Soloists join in to perform choral parts. No one performed “The Dance of the Hours.” (The friends I’d brought suggested that the three of us improvise it, since we resemble hippopotami in tutus.)

What you get here is well-trained young voices blasting the score into your face at fairly close quarters, plus a BYOB spread of nibbles. If you like hearing an opera score live, up close and personal, this is the place. And the repertory is exceptional. Last time I went, they did The Rake’s Progress. Next up, in April, is Die Walküre (slightly cut), part of an ongoing Ring cycle. Performances are conducted by the OCB’s spunky director, Jay Meetze. For La Gioconda, they were plot summaries before each act to confuse you further. (Mine, actually, channeling my inner Anna Russell.)

La Gioconda is a night of six stars. It doesn’t work if you skimp on them, as the Met found out when they attempted to revive it as a vehicle for Ewa Podles. Elizabeth Shoup, who has a deep and powerful soprano of great solidity up to the top of the staff, sang Gioconda with great force and bite and a strong, even sound, though her top notes and soft singing seemed under-supported.

Laura Flaxman sang Laura Adorno (is Laura a descendant of the entire cast of Simon Boccanegra? Probably), with a sizable and attractive instrument. There were some wavering pitches, but she rose to the challenge of her duets with Enzo and Gioconda in Act II. Kristin Starkey sang La Cieca with a genuine plummy contralto that warmed the heart.

Tenor Lindell O. Carter—a last-minute replacement, but we’re not supposed to know that—just imagine ransacking New York for an Enzo at the last minute—well, they found one!—gave us an inspiring “Cielo e mar,” off-book, and for the rest, having first seen the score two days earlier, sang from his iPad like a true professional. It’s difficult to play a hotheaded lover while reading from an iPad, but his performance was so ardent and involved that we soon forgot about it. Once or twice a high note was replaced by a lower one, but they were good notes and only those familiar with recordings noticed.

David Tapp, a baritone of genuine distinction, sang and snarled Barnaba, the spy who drives the whole crazy plot, with distinction and malice. His “Pescator! Affonda l’esca” was suave, room-filling, beautifully phrased, and the sarcasm of his repeated “Buona fortuna,” sung to each of his dupes in turn, curdled the blood. Mr. Tapp sings as often in musicals as in opera, and his acting chops are well-honed. (Does one hone a chop?) But his excellent voice should not be hidden behind a microphone; he will essay Wotan for OCB.

Paul Goodwin-Groen, who looks as imposing as he sounds, was an egregiously menacing Alvise Badoer. Julio Hernandez and Ivan Amaro divvied up the supporting roles and the soloists gamely took on the chorus and offstage parts. Lucas Barkley was the expert and atmospheric pianist.

The evening was rich in the sensual pleasure of able singers tearing with into a score whose justification lies in providing delight.

  • Interesting. This is the first time I’ve heard Gioconda referred to as an Aida rip-off. I’m curious where this notion comes from…

    I think it’s a great piece and like to think of it as a bel canto opera in verismo clothing. It is sometimes lumped in with Chenier and Adriana Lecouvreur but I think it is far superior musically to those two (though I like them as well). What it does have in common with those two operas is that it requires not just great voices, but singers who have the right temperament and understanding of style. Otherwise, one shouldn’t bother staging it.

    • grimoaldo

      You could say that “La Gioconda” was an attempt to emulate the success of “Aida” in seeking to be a French grand opera, only in Italian -- four acts instead of five, but with big choruses, lavish scenery, and most pertinently, a lengthy ballet in the second half of the piece, which Italian opera had avoided before that time.

  • almavivante

    I love La Gioconda, and am saddened that since the Met reportedly junked its production, we will probably not see it there again in my lifetime. But a slight correction: Eva Podles sang La Cieca, not either the title role or Laura, in the Met’s recent revival, so it really wasn’t a vehicle for her. (Gioconda was Urmana one year, Voigt another--neither one entirely satisfactory.) Much as I love her, and was glad to see her back at the Met, I thought she was more or less wasted in that supporting role. (Luxury casting, though.)

    • Actually, you’re almost exactly wrong on that one. It is in fact far more likely that the Met would present Gioconda in a new production because the sort of stars necessary to put this kind of work over are frankly not going to be interested in teetering around on some ancient faded flats and platforms in a production directed by someone who’s been moldering in the ground for more than two decades.

      Or, to put it another way, the Met tried reviving this work on the strength of the title (i.e., without any particularly exciting names in the cast) and nobody bothered to attend.

      The notion there is this enormous unfulfilled demand for Gioconda is a myth. If there were an audience for the work, theaters would be presenting it.

      • Greg.Freed

        My desire to hear it, alone, should fill a theater but it turns out not to work like that.

      • almavivante

        If our doyenne’s reply is in response to mine above it, I’m not sure why I’m “almost exactly wrong.” I didn’t imply that there’s some groundswell of enthusiasm to revive Gioconda--I wish there were--which is being ignored by opera companies the world over, so I don’t want to be responsible for circulating that “myth.” Also, I gather that “the stars necessary to put this kind of work over” are at the moment either not interested in singing this opera or they are nonexistent. I would guess the latter, but if someone among the cher public would like to assemble a realistic present-day dream cast, I am eager to read their suggestion. I fear, however, that a renewed interest in Gioconda would result in a new production that is set in the wrong century and nowhere near Venice. (It worked for The Pearl Fishers.)

        • Paris had it less than three years ago, and Pizzi’s production is set in a Pizzi version of Venice.

          • Camille

            The Parisians had the Pizzi version, too? I was very interested in attending that production (in Rome), but did not and have wondered about its viability in other theaters, as the Rome opera theatre is nowhere as big as the Met. The presentation in Paris was in the Bastille, or the Garner?

            • Bastille.

            • “His sets are neatly-built, sensible, legible and battleship grey: two canals with a bridge over each; one canal with a bridge at each end and a red ship at the rear; one canal with a very wide bridge in the middle; a rectangular island with a tomb and some cypresses. Gondola movements are beautifully managed, the prow rising and falling smoothly in response to the oar.”

            • Grimoaldo’s video below is from the same production.

  • grimoaldo

    Thank you for the review Hans. Yes I love that opera (including the story!) too and it is a shame that there really seems to be no one who can sing it right now.
    As they did not do the ballet, you or others may enjoy this performance with the wondrous Angel Corella at the end doing his trademark leaping about and spinning around on tippytoes like he has skates on, only he doesn’t, how the hell anyone could do that has always amazed me. Warning, the ballerina is virtually nude, in case that is something someone doesn’t want to see-

    • moi

      I’ve often wondered, why ballet has always such a success, when inserted in an opera..
      And in a ballet performance eventual music soloist get also the bigger hand

      • moi

        Actually, Roberto Bolle had such a success ca. 10 years ago in the Scala Aida, that one journalist asked Alagna (before he left the production in a latter show during act 1) how he felt about it…
        Alagna answered that maybe those people should go and see ballet instead… not totally wrong…

        • grimoaldo

          • manou

            Very visible success.

          • gustave of montreal

            That Aida scene is baffling in its musical vulgarity

        • Will

          Mr. Bolle had great success A) because he is a truly great dancer and B) because he danced it almost completely naked (I believe he has danced completely naked in some ballets).

      • I don’t think it always has such success -- in my experience, rather the opposite: it often gets booed and I can still remember people at Garnier actually shouting”C’est dégueulasse” at ballets during Die Fledermaus in the 80s.

        • E.G. in castor et Pollux at the Champe Elysées 18 months ago:

          “The ballets were, however, vigorous, writhing and semaphoric – they must have been exhausting for the dancers – and made the scenes in hell, wreathed in smoke and lit in red, quite effective, in a neo-baroque way. They were booed at the end, as usual, but the booing was soon out-clapped and out-cheered. I’ve seen worse ballets at the opera. Far worse – though friend number one claimed he never had, so perhaps he was among the booers.”

    • Juicy Bjorling

      elisabete matos can sing it, she’s been doing it very successfully for some years now. but the met doesn’t seem to know what to do with such great talent (the met is run by idiots, as we have seen).

      she’s slated to sing it soon in chile, with alfred kim and geraldine chauvet.

      • armerjacquino

        The same idiots clearly run the Bastille, Covent Garden and Munich, as Matos hasn’t appeared in any of those houses. And they’ve obviously taken over La Scala and Vienna, places where she has sung but which haven’t rebooked her.

        She’s got an exciting voice but it’s unwieldy and she’s no actor. I don’t think there’s any idiocy keeping her out of major houses- she’s sung at some of them a few times, which I think is about her level.

        • messa di voce

          B-circuit houses compared to the Teatro Municipale de Santiago.

          • Juicy Bjorling

            speaking of idiots… right on cue is gelb ‘s shill.

            • steveac10

              Oh, please! Gelb and the Fiend have given Matos as much, more, work than any other major house in the world. She’s in her early 50’s now -- if she was destined to be a star outside the Iberian peninsula and South America, it would have happened 10 or 15 years ago. I view her more as the Portuguese Elisabeth Blanke-Biggs than an overlooked star.

      • I’ll refrain from commenting on Elisabete Matos as my opinion would be biased, since she’s a beloved compatriot.

        Here’s the portuguese soprano performing Gioconda on home turf, back in May 2014.

        • armerjacquino

          Yep. Big, exciting voice, but some fairly lumpy phrasing and some hair-raising squawks. She’s good, but that’s about all. I don’t in any way see a great artist kept out of major houses by idiocy.

          • PCally

            Agree completely. Also I want to reiterate a point you made earlier that she’s kind of a non-actress. I saw her Minnie at the met and much to my surprise I thought Voigt did considerably more with the character (not that I really cared much for her in the role) than Matos who mostly just stood there.

            • Krunoslav

              I ‘d say Matos was MUCH better than Voigt vocally and more convincing dramatically. The Met orchestra stayed to applaud at her debut-- a sign they could tell how much better she was than the ‘world’s leading dramatic soprano” she was covering.
              PC, do you imagine she had one minute of stage rehearsal for that debut, intended as a one-off (though Voigt canceled another show)?

              I am sure she also got none for her subsequent Tosca and Abigaille, both just OK routine…

              A similar case was Sue Patchell, who made a very exciting Met debut as Isolde replacing Eaglen but whose subsequent Salome was no threat to Mattila; her Kaiserin was ‘quite nice’, but at that point Voigt was fully on top of that part, at least vocally.

            • Camille

              “I ‘d say Matos was MUCH better than Voigt vocally and more convincing dramatically. The Met orchestra stayed to applaud at her debut-- a sign they could tell how much better she was than the ‘world’s leading dramatic soprano” she was covering.
              PC, do you imagine she had one minute of stage rehearsal for that debut, intended as a one-off (though Voigt canceled another show)?”

              I’d say so too. She made a very successful debut and she most certainly was a most credible and convincing Minnie. I’ve sat through a couple dozen Voigt performances and she never convinced me of any characterization--Gioconda being the least credible of all, come to think of it, excepting a portion of Act IV. I think her age at the time of the debut may have had something to do with it and the fact she has a fairly busy career elsewhere. Sorry not to hear her again.

              Saw Sue Patchell as Senta and after I’d heard so much about the Isolde I thought it would have been something a bit more exciting.

            • armerjacquino

              I didn’t see or hear Matos as Minnie so I can’t speak to whether or not she was better than Voigt: but nonetheless I stick to my view that the Great Gioconda Revival would not be helped by the Met planning a new production around her.

              I remember reading about Patchell’s Isolde in one of the old issues of the Parterre zine that was digitised a couple of years ago. Sounded like a real star is born moment but then I couldn’t find much about her.

              There is this ELEKTRA finale (and my god, Marton is terrific here- I had remembered her as sort of squally and stately but this is really exciting)

            • oscar

              “I view her more as the Portuguese Elisabeth Blanke-Biggs than an overlooked star.”

              What’s the deal with Blanke-Biggs? I heard a Sirius Met broadcast of Tosca a few years ago where she stepped in for Dessi at the very last minute. I thought she was amazing. Big rich Italianate voice. She kind of reminded me of Elinor Ross. I’ve heard far worse on Met broadcasts. She wasn’t the most polished of singers but she was damn exciting. Is she an embarrassment on stage or something?

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              What is this I read, Amerjacquino?????? Marton STATELY AND SQUALLY???? NEVER! She was the last great La Gioconda at the Met, a really stunning and astounding performance, tremendous fire and abandon, huge voice and an excellent feel for the style if not at every point the language. She was butch as all get out and certainly scared the stuffing out of the tenor Carlo Bini and shortened the life of poor very gifted Mo. Patane when he had to turn to the hysterical audience and scream, “shut up!!!!” (I LOVED him, he let me sit in the pit for one of the performances, the orchestra pit not the one I’m in in my life and he was fabulous, he also as a joke didn’t conduct the forlana at the end of act one, letting the orchestra do it alone, they all laughed — relevant to M. Croche’s valuable info that is one great sample of Ponchielli’s gift fo banda music).

              I never saw Marton be stately, not as the loudest Empress in history (Leonie was huge but Marton pushed, she paid for it later but it was thrilling), or even as Eva in her Met debut, which I kept going back to for then her voice was still a huge lyric floating effortlessly to enormous effect in the Met. And then her Ortrud at the first night of ’84, deafening and wildly abandoned (she had to pull back at the second performance). And her insane performance in the great Konwitschny production at Munich…

              Then there was her thrilling Salome; her looming presence and the fact that she looked like a linebacker perhaps robbed her impersonation of… something… but it was wild and enormous. I also loved her Elektra in Vienna, two insane evenings. She was a Turandot HUNGRY for male flesh (I know the feeling) and also huge vocally if by then not so effortless at the top, and the Siegfried Brunnhilde in San Francisco blood red toenails and all was also wild and stunning (Gotterdammerung may have been a lot for her at that time but she set the stage on fire — admittedly a bit early — in act two.) And then there was the demented Dyer’s Wife at Salzburg… STATELY?

              Alas, she subjected her voice to a lot of punishment and it began to show in the late 80’s and more seriously in the early 90’s. She isn’t good on The Ring recording (although I love Haitink’s conducting and the orchestra winds). But for a time she was a throwback to a kind of Gioconda like greatness in address and abandon.

            • Camille

              Eva Marton’s Salome -- AKA -- “The Dance of the Seven Veals

              Sorry, I didn’t make it up, I stole it from You-Know-Who. It’s too good to be lost.

            • Camille

              Camille concurs. Eva Marton’s Gioconda may be heard now and again on Sirius Once I heard it thrice in one day and never tired of it all.

  • Camille

    “It doesn’t work if you skimp on them, as the Met found out when they attempted to revive it as a vehicle for Ewa Podles.”

    Wicked. Indeed, in that instance it should have been retitled LA CIECA! Her “Voce di donna” was such a beautiful moment. Even Voigt and Borodin suspended their respective Diva-nesses to watch and listen intently to her as she sang her heart out.

    Bless you, my dear Sir, for this line:

    “we, the true opera lovers, miss it. Handel is good, Cavalli is talented and Glass is promising, but they aren’t Ponchielli.”

    Now, I am not certain, nor should I dare assert that WE are the “true” opera lovers over the Cavalli-ites, the Handel-ites, and the Glaßwegians, as that assertion would start a war of cosmic proportions here on parterre, but I do assert that we do TRULY love La Gioconda, those few of us left out here in the dark. It just takes great singing, and, therein lies the rub.

    Thanking you for your defense of this well-loved old hoary warhorse, and happy to note that some group had the temerity to take it on, lest it die altogether, although it was a shame about the lack of rosary, dagger, poison and masks!

    n.b. — As Ponchielli was the teacher of Puccini, inter alia, it is a kind of synthesis of the grand opera spectacle which sort of lends itself to foreshadowing the veristic movement. It refers backward and forward, Janus-like, and is a kind of link to both, as grimoaldo says above, and the ballet element is an important part of determining it as part of that grand opera tradition.

    Well, that’s just my shorthand way of looking at it, so don’t stab or poison me if you don’t agree.

    “Enzo, madre adorata, Ah, come T’AAAAAAAAAAA-MO!”

  • Camille

    Once again, BLAME VICTOR HUGO.
    He’s the one who wrote the 1835 play “Angelo, tyran de Padoue”, its source material.

    • Will

      I believe that the operatic Gioconda knows about Laura having to drink poison and being on hand in time to stop her because I have read that in Hugo’s play Gioconda is Alvise’s mistress, a complication that didn’t make it into Boito’s libretto. What would be more natural than for a husband to regale his mistress with plans to rid himself of his wife?

  • OK, let’s do a dream cast with today’s available singers.

    Gioconda — Netrebko
    Enzo — Kaufmann
    Laura — Garanca, Barton, Semenchuk
    Barnaba — Can’t think of an ideal fit. I guess Lucic
    La Cieca — We’re not exactly swimming in sonorous bassos, especially for the Italian rep. I guess Kocan could do it.

    • manou

      You forgot Quinn Kelsey.

    • armerjacquino

      Kelsey for Barnaba?

      I think your mezzos are a little polite for Laura. Maybe Anita Rach?

      Zajick for La Cieca (rather than a sonorous basso…)

      • armerjacquino

        And I think I’d probably go for Fabiano as Enzo. Kaufmann would micromanage ‘Cielo e mar’ too much for my taste.

        (Disgruntled parterrians write: What you’d get at the Met, of course, would be Racette, Leonard, Berti, and Plowright.)

    • Something went wrong with my post.

      I had Podles or Blythe as La Cieca. And yes, I agree Zajick could do it too.

      How could I forget Kelsey as Barnaba. And I totally agree about Fabiano for Enzo.

      I also love the suggestion of A-Rach for Laura.

      So, here is my revised dream cast.

      Gioconda — Netrebko
      Enzo — Fabiano
      Laura — Rachvelishvilli
      Barnaba — Kelsey
      La Cieca — Podles, Blythe, Zajick
      Alvise — Kocan

      Let’s get Yannick Nezet-Seguin to conduct.

      • Krunoslav

        Kocan’s patrt in this opera would be Zuàne.

        I still fail t believe that there are those on this site who think his relatively minor house bass level of talent impressive because he looked hot as Sparafucile. The nearly inaudible Konchak in PRINCE IGOR should have indicated how mediocre an Alvise he would be.

        How about Giacomo Prestia or Orlin Anastasov or Aleksandr Tsymbalyuk or even Furlanetto?

      • mjmacmtenor

        Now that would be cast! Change the gender of the King or High Priest (p contralto) and you could have a darn good Aida cast as well.
        Meanwhile, here are some clips from the all mezzo version. (Actually, I think it is one of Bumbry’s better soprano roles)

    • Porgy Amor

      The casting topic has come up a few times. I’d be interested to hear Monastyrska as Gioconda. I believe she has already sung it somewhere, prior to her international breakthrough. Yes to Semenchuk as Laura. Move Zajick down to La Cieca, or bring Podles back for another lap if this happens soon enough. Fabiano or Kaufmann for Enzo, fine. My Barnaba choice would be recent Met Conte di Luna Juan Jesús Rodríguez, who is the real deal, a replacement who was better than most of what gets scheduled in Italian baritone roles at the Met these days. Either Belosselskiy or Zeppenfeld for Alvise.

      • Juicy Bjorling

        years ago, westbroek would have been good in the title role, but not anymore.

  • manou

    Fiona Maddocks, music critic of the Observer, on why no one should apologize for art:

    Plus in the comments a handy (pardon the expression) guide on how to recognize an American.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      I loved reading the comments. I’m a bit surprised that no one mentioned that possibility that the naked performer was Jewish.

  • Ilka Saro

    “How does Gioconda know that Alvise is going to order Laura to drink poison?”

    Given the way directors love to illuminate thorny plot questions with “artistic choices” I can envision a simple regie solution to this question. Ala xmas panto, you can have the audience call out to Gioconda that this has happened. Perhaps Gioconda could even participate in one of those back and forths that are so beloved in pantos. “No he WOULDN’T poison her!” [cries from the audience]. “No, I can’t BELIEVE it!” [more cries etc]

    • pirelli

      Sounds like something out of Peter Pan. “Everyone -- clap if you believe in Enzo!” ;-)

      • Ilka Saro

        Quick! Let’s find an agent and start directing before somebody else does this first!

    • Will

      See my reply to Camille, above. It is actually logical IF the opera libretto had included one little bit of relationship complication that I had once read was part of Hugo’s play.

    • mrsjohnclaggart

      It’s made perfectly clear how Gioconda knows that she has to rescue Laura:

      sulla laguna
      Ten va, serenata,
      Per l’aura serena,
      Ten va, cantilena,
      Per l’onda incantata.
      Udite le blande
      Canzoni vagar,
      Il remo ci scande
      Gli accordi sul mar.

      Entra Gioconda e s’appiatta in fondo. La serenata cessa per un momento.

      estraendo una fiala
      Prendi questo velen; e già che forte
      Tanto mi sembri ne’ tuoi detti audaci,
      Con quelle labbra che succhiaro i baci,
      Suggi la morte.
      »La tua condanna confido a te stessa;
      Non far che ma! securo
      Voler t’arresti la mano perplessa,
      Non far che il mio pugnale ti percota
      E insozzi i lari del tuo sangue impuro.«
      Scampo non hai,
      Odi questa canzon? “Morir dovrai
      Pria ch’essa giunga all’ultima sua nota”


      That serenata is the music of Gioconda’s people, which means she is nigh. She understands from act two that Barnaba knows all about Laura’s desire to escape with Enzo. After deciding not to kill Laura herself, (because from her behind Laura pulls La Cieca’s rosary and Gioconda kisses it), Gioconda gets her off the boat before it comes under attack. But she knows Laura will have no choice but to return home where The Dear only knows what awaits her.

      Gioconda with her people from the lagoon is hovering and then eavesdropping. She sneaks into a dark place and sees Alvise give Laura the poison to kill herself. He leaves (esce as above). Gioconda manifests and persuades Laura to take the antidote she evidently always carries since obviously her singing prompts people to want to poison her (believe me I AM LA GIOCONDA, the public singer and KNOW). It’s an all-purpose antidote, works on every poison known to man. Laura figures she has naught to lose and takes it.

      Being unclear and being farfetched are different things. I am both and know.

      La Gioconda is sacred to me, like Vanessa, I don’t care who hates them, I LOVE THEM, THEY ARE MY LIFE.

  • I don;t know if her voice has quite enough heft for it, but I’d love to see Latonia Moore tackle Gioconda.

  • Rudolf

    @ Hans Lick
    “How does Gioconda know that Alvise is going to order Laura to drink poison?”
    In the libretto they state … Alvise leaves. Gioconda runs to Laura, seizes the poison that Laura has in her hands and gives her another vial. Gioconda to Laura: “I foresaw your fate.”
    Isn’t that a most convincing explanation???

    • mrsjohnclaggart

      You’re wrong dear. Just two entries above yours I quote the libretto and explain it. Maybe you have a hard time reading but it doesn’t hurt to run your eyes over the responses before yours. I never know what to make of nonsense like yours. As I suggested, Gioconda’s interference IS explained in the libretto and DOES make sense given the style of the piece and we get to SEE just how she comes to save Laura and can understand why. It is a libretto that isn’t realistic but your condescension for it suggests that the stupid ones aren’t the creators. I have nothing but contempt for those that just love to insist that Il Trovatore is all nonsense when every scene is PERFECTLY logical, it’s emotions are earned. The “back story” is complicated but you know it’s not TV where it’s expected the audience will have an IQ of 7 and an attention span of 2 minutes. La Gioconda has less emotional force because it’s less tethered to issues that concern bright humans (Trovatore does concern itself with identity, the tension between reality and dream, a love that crosses political and class lines as far as everyone knows to the last minute, the duality of the parental impulse while Gioconda is a gaudier, more superficial love story) but everything that happens in it is motivated. Why people NEED to feel that opera is stupid but want to comment on it to show their superiority is strange to me.

      • armerjacquino

        There’s a middle ground with TROV though, isn’t there? My take has always been that it’s a daft story but that doesn’t matter. Lots of great melodramas have daft stories and that’s part of the appeal. And you’re right that there’s nothing wrong with its internal logic- nothing that would make a performer say ‘hang on, why am I doing that?’ if it were a new work being workshopped. I think it’s perfectly possible to say that it’s a great work that has a daft story without being sneery or superior.

        As for the GIOCONDA libretto- well, if people are going to pick holes in the work of Italian opera’s greatest librettist (albeit working under a pseudonym) then they’re braver or more foolhardy than I am.

        • An issue with Gioconda is that Bioto meddled with the plot and frankly for all this enormous talent, telling a story is not really his long suit. As has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, in the original Hugo play the “Gioconda” character is Alvise’s mistress and as such plausibly might have the run of the palace. Further, somewhere along the line of developing the third act of the libretto, the plot point was lost that Gioconda was at the Ca’ d’oro in a professional capacity; that is, she was hired to sing as part of the entertainment for the guests at the ball.

          This detail got lost in the shuffle because Boito seemed determined to put as much sensational incident as possible onstage, even events that in the original play took place offstage and many years in the past.

          • mrsjohnclaggart

            I agree with you La Cieca, and it would have been better if when La Gioconda manifested Laura had cried, “have you come to kill me?” “No, I am to sing with my friends at the festa — you can hear them singing outside — . I suspected you were in danger and was able to find you. Here, take this…”

            However, I also understand why Boito wouldn’t have wanted to muddy the waters with her being Alvise’s mistress. He is the villain and she is passionately in love with the hero, to the point of bargaining her body to a loathsome horror to save him.

            Secondly, Alvise in knowing who she is would certainly know that La Cieca was her mother. If they were still involved, he would have saved La Cieca. But his doing that — however he did it — (“We must find out if she is the demon witch of a coven, take her inside and torture her!” And then, once inside, he would have let her go. That might be one way) would have robbed us of a crucial scene.

            Out of kindness a masked Laura saves La Cieca — Enzo her betrothed of long ago still in love with her — recognizes her voice — La Cieca in gratitude gives Laura her rosary, and that rosary saves Laura twice, once from Gioconda’s fury and once from Alvise’s vindictiveness. The whole of Voce di donna is a great scene, in which a lot that is crucial to the story happens, and to go into Gioconda’s past or current adulterous relationship with Alvise would spoil it.

            Also, no one in the opera is admirable but Gioconda and her mother. Enzo is quick to drop Gioconda for Laura and connives at her adultery, he is willing to work with a vicious spy to do it, Laura is an adulteress, Alvise, a monster. To make Gioconda an opportunistic whore, rather than a girl in love with a supposed “sailor” who moreover has been playing her the whole time, using her as part of his cover in the hopes he can get to Laura would lessen her as the heroine.

            So Boito’s shortcut is contrived but I can understand why it’s there.

            Bigger problems happen in Vanessa, the story of my life. There are TONS of holes in that story, despite its fancy surface.

      • grimoaldo

        Hear, hear, mrsjc! the story of Trovatore is one of the greatest ever (no, it is not daft. IMO anyway.)

        • armerjacquino

          One of the *greatest ever*? Ok, now you’ve got to be trolling. I can understand defending it against people who seek to belittle the work, but I am truly gobsmacked that anyone could think that in the history of storytelling, IL TROVATORE is one of the greatest ever.

          • Magpie

            Gioconda is my one dirty little secret. I Adore it. What is the issue with the plot? there is Nothing ridiculous about it. I cut cable 15 years ago but I still cannot believe what I see on the 12 channels I get on over the white trailer trash rabbit ears…. Kardashians, Jenner, Housewives of x county, bachelor, Harvard as a hotbed of free speech censorship, TRUMP!, GOP, Supreme Justice…..etc etc etc..
            La Gioconda’s plot so makes sense to me…Now I am going to go listen to it..(Not the Zinka -- that one I hate……..)

          • Well, I think this argument goes to the function of the libretto in an opera. It’s not supposed to be a stand-alone drama but rather a framework for the musical composition. Trovatore is an excellent libretto for Verdi because he is strongly inspired by bizarre incidents, extreme emotions and sudden reversals. The way the libretto of Trovatore is structured, the work is all climaxes, and even the final scene -- which is almost impossible to stage -- is bone-chilling both musically and verbally.

            As a straight drama, Trovatore is far too concentrated. But for a libretto, that really “saturated” quality I think delivers just the punch Verdi needed to turn out the sort of violent piece he had in mind.

            • armerjacquino

              Yes, I agree with all of this. There’s no doubt that it’s a very well crafted libretto. But, again, I never said it was a bad libretto. I said it was a daft story. THE WINTER’S TALE is a pretty daft story too, which doesn’t stop it from being a great play.

          • grimoaldo

            No I am not trolling aj and we have discussed this before, I know you do not agree, fine, but please don’t accuse me of not meaning what I say.
            The drama of Il Trovatore, to me, is like a wild Gothic horror/romance, yes, full of dream, or nightmare like unlikely but not impossible happenings, that goes to the extremes of human experience, the absolute best and the worst, with crucial things to say about racism, religion fired superstition and persecution in Western societies.

            • armerjacquino

              Yes, we’ve discussed it before, but you’ve not pulled out the ‘greatest story EVAH!’ line before, which is why I was surprised. But do please let go of your pearls: it was a figure of speech, I wasn’t ‘accusing’ you (the DRAMA!) of anything.

            • messa di voce

              GBS on Trovatore: “It has tragic power, poignant melancholy, impetuous vigor and a sweet and intense pathos that never loses its dignity. It is swift in action and perfectly homogeneous in thought and feeling”

            • Camille

              Whatever one may think of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, please bear in mind that the libretto wasn’t invented out of the ether, but based upon a thoroughly successful play called El trovador, (1836), by one Antonio García Gutiérrez, who, similarly wrote the play Simón Bocanegra, which Maestro Verdi also thought so well of he adapted into his own work Simon Boccanegra, presently to be given at the Metropolitan with the legends [sic], Maestro Levine and Maestro Domingo.

              What have you all to about the fantastical and improbable nature of Simon Boccanegra? Or is that a different case altogether? It is hard to understand and sympathize with the theatrical conventions of another era, one so remote in time to us now as the 1830’s, but shouldn’t we at least try to understand what WAS entertainment in those days, and cut a little slack? Does everything have to relate to US and our times?

              I’m not making this up, you know.

            • Camille

              “What have you all to SAY,….”

              I mean, so much is made of this Trovatore Baby-Throwing Thing and no one ever much gets upset about Kostelnicka’s Baby Throwing Tantrum, do they? Babies are exposed, and thrown away every day, even unto this day. Read the newspapers or turn on your news channel.

            • messa di voce

              “shouldn’t we at least try to understand what WAS entertainment in those days, and cut a little slack?”

              Good kuck with that.

            • grimoaldo

              “Simon Boccanegra”, like Trovatore, has a very complicated back story, all sorts of important things have happened before the action of the opera begins, and all sorts of important things happen between the acts of the opera also, but most people cannot be bothered to work it all out and so it seems confusing.
              Also like Trovatore, the plot hinges on improbable coincidences and mistaken identities, and other extreme events which as you say Camille happen in real life but a lot of people, for some reason, find unacceptable in a drama. That is one of the things about Romantic literature, it is not interested in everyday mundane reality, but in the most extreme events and emotions possible.
              One of the reasons why I love opera is because it is the only place which still preserves Romantic dramas like the plays of Hugo and Gutiérrez,as the libretti for operas.

            • Camille

              Dear messa,
              I have no hard ‘kuck’ finding “Good Kuck”, whatsoever, so it is not now or ever has been a concern, but I don’t know about others here.

              and now, I must away, I’ll bid you a cherry adoooooo and a “Goodbye & Good Kuck”!

            • armerjacquino

              I’m not sure what I can really do at this point. I’ve said it’s a great opera; I’ve said it’s an excellent libretto; I’ve said that a daft story is no barrier to a great work… it seems some quarters won’t rest until I say I don’t find the story daft, which would be a lie because I do.

              I don’t see the JENUFA comparison at all: it’s not ‘harm coming to a baby’ that is hard for me to swallow, it’s ‘Let’s avenge my mother by killing a baby. Ooops, burned mine by mistake! Oh well, I’ll raise my arch enemy’s baby as my own but I won’t tell anyone, until one day I will, then I’ll immediately retract it’. I find that daft. I think TROV is a great work, with a fine libretto, and is a great night in the theatre, and I happen to find the story daft. I don’t have anything against people who don’t, and it doesn’t make me think myself ‘superior’… is that allowed or shall we have another spin?

            • Wait, which part of that chain of events would you find daft? A woman who through guilt, shame, or maternal affection raises another child as her own? Her vacillating indecision as to whether to confess such a horrible secret? The only part that strikes me as improbable is the confusion between the two babies. But it happens offstage and the imagination supplies plausible circumstances: dark night, a head dazed by emotions, the mysterious workings of Fate or a malicious God.

            • armerjacquino

              Oh. Turns out you DO want me to lie.

            • That’s a logical response. I’m convinced.

            • armerjacquino

              Mate, as I have already explained AT LENGTH, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I am simply saying that I’m not going to pretend I don’t find something daft when I do. I’ve said why I find it daft: you can agree or disagree as you wish. But don’t insist that I should hold an opinion just because you do.

      • figaroindy

        Methinks Mrs JC is being just a bit too disingenuous. Certainly, with your clear ability to make snide remarks on the intelligence and opinions of others, you can fully understand how someone might want to make comments on opera to show their superiority…can’t you? Why, they’re just two sides of the same coin! Seriously, your post above is so much the exact thing you’re trying to discount that I laughed out loud at your “wide-eyed innocence” in the final sentence!

        • 98rsd

          Yes, but I’m sure he won’t be able to see it. I treasure his intelligence, but the vitriol is another matter. Not being able to make a point without trying to demolish others is not a good sign. (And suddenly I’m thinking about Donald Trump…)

          • mrsjohnclaggart

            Ye twain have broken my small heart. All a suffering wench can do is wish her enemies well:

            • Bill

              Time for a truce -- Mrs. JC is a legendary Schriftsteller and full of experience and knowledge
              whose prose (and ramblings) I find valuable and entertaining reading. It is not unknown for those
              writing on Parterre to be critical of others, even biting at times. But one should not take these things too seriously for, after all, few write utilizing their
              actual names (as I do) and one of the positive aspects of this blog is people not in agreement with each other.
              One learns -- so let’s all be tolerant of each other.
              For me, this blog is worth it for Mrs. JC’s scribblings alone so lets not drive anyone out.

            • Camille

              Oh I LOVE Eugenia Burzio, missusclaggart--thanks so much for posting her.
              She is a favorite of mine because of her excess, shall we say. Created furore at La Scala and was worshipped. Grazie mille!

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              Thank you, Bill, it’s very nice of you. But the haters have ye always with ye. I wish I WERE Donald Trump, I’m too lazy to run for president and don’t hate along ethnic/racial lines (although I DO hate) but I could use the dough!!! I appreciate your kind words.

              And Camille, Burzio was an amazing person, an excellent violinist and formidable writer (she ran a magazine after she retired from the stage). She even intimidated Arturo Toscanini! Her method of expression sounds extreme in a very bland world but is usually what the music calls for. I AM Eugenia Burzio!!!!!!!!!!!!

            • Camille

              That’s correct, missusclaggart, you ARE Eugenia Burzio but you are NOT La Gioconda!!!
              You ARE Fedora!

              “Fedora fe d’oro!”

  • mercadante

    The opera was revised, perhaps the original was a little more detailed in some plot points?

    • mrsjohnclaggart

      I am sorry to see discussion of La Gioconda end (though I suppose it must). Mercadante is right, two versions of the opera were given. Although Wikipedia states it was a “hit” in 1876, my understanding is that it had a mixed reception. Ponchielli rewrote it, and the version we know today was given in 1880, when it was a sensation. I somehow think there was even a third version (actually the first attempt) which maybe didn’t reach the stage, finished in the early 1870s. Ponchielli scholarship doesn’t seem to exist for some reason but I suspect somewhere there are facts. I have always understood that the problem was that Ponchielli was a depressive and prone to writing blocks. He seems to have had a hard time generating the music of certain sections and went through frequent drafts.

      Apparently he couldn’t write “cielo e mar” and wrote draft after draft. Boito became impatient and Ricordi, the publisher visited Ponchielli to see if he could cheer him on. Supposedly Ponchielli said, “I wrote my latest draft this morning and threw it out.” Ricordi asked where it was. Ponchielli had the maid go through the trash until she found pages of music. Among those was a treatment of the tenor aria. Ponchielli played it and Ricordi said, “it’s great, it’s the one we’ll use.” And indeed it is the one we are familiar with today.

      I also remember being told that he had had a lot of trouble with the concertato (act three scene two finale), in which a lot of plot detail has to be folded into an ensemble that keeps moving. That too went through a lot of drafts until he arrived at what we have today. All intelligent people consider it the worst part of the score but I love it and couldn’t live without it. It has my favorite line in it when Gioconda says to Barnaba: Se lo salvi e adduci al lido,
      Laggiù presso al Redentor, Il mio corpo t’abbandono,
      O terribile cantor. (if you save him — Enzo — and take him to the lido near the Redeemer — a Church — I’ll surrender my body to you, you TERRIBLE singer!!!!!!!!!!!!”).

      Although Boito may have made changes in plot to his first draft, I have a feeling that the different versions were the result of trial and error from Ponchielli.

      Gianandrea Gavazzeni told me that Ponchielli had written one true masterpiece, l figliuol prodigo. That was given at La Scala in 1880. I am also very fond of I Lituani. I’ve played l figliuol prodigo at the piano, I don’t know of a recording and it is TONS of fun and so is I Lituani (there is, at least, a pirate).

      I think he was a gifted composer, without virtuoso skills but I like his chamber music.

      • Camille

        Did Mo. Gavazzeni not mention anything about Marion Delorme, which his mogliettina, Denia, recorded somewhere sround the turn of the century? There is a rather Gioconda like scena at the beginning of the fourth act for Marion in this work, the score of which I managed to see, ONCE in my life. I’ve never got my mitts on the other two you speak of --apparently Urmana sings an aria from I Lituani. It’s a shame the others are so infrequently revived and Ponchielli’s really quite beautiful music doesn’t get heard all that much.

        And I am so glad I am unintelligent, too, and just LURVE the third act concertato, which is simply thrilling when brought off really well. And don’t EVER abandon your body to a Cantor, Terribile or otherwise!

        Thank you for speaking of my beloved Happy Girl! It makes ME a happy girl.

      • Mrs. JC: At the risk of bringing owls to Athens, have you ever run across these two articles by Antonio Polignano? On the (very remote) chance you haven’t, they might provide some the background to the stories you were told about Ponchielli.

        “La storia della Gioconda attraverso il carteggio Ponichielli- ricordi.” Nuova rivista musicale Italiana 21, no. 2 (1987), pp. 228-245.

        “Costanti stilistiche ed elementi di drammaturgia musicale nelle due versioni del finale d’atto della ‘Gioconda” di Ponchielli (1876-1879″ Rivista Italiana di Musicologia Vol. 27, No. 1/2 (1992), pp. 327-350

        Needless to say, I’ve been enjoying all this Ponchielliana. Thanks for the delightful video of the quartet-concerto arrangement. Ponchielli, king of the banda composers?

        • (Off topic question: there are lots of books about, say, the Strauss family and their orchestras, but are there any entertaining historical-biographical treatments of Italian banda composes/bandleaders/musicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries?)

          • Thought I would share a few links on this topic before I went off to bed.

            It turns out that there are indeed a couple of scholars who have recently studied Ponchielli’s work for wind band.

            On the Italian side, there is Licia Sirch, (co-?)director of the Milan Conservatory’s library, professor there, and president of the Centro Studi Amilcare Ponchielli. Sirch prepared Ponchielli’s thematic catalogue and edited a volume of essays devoted to the composer’s banda music. Among her essays on the composer’s operas and band music, there also this: “Le tre redazioni del quartetto per fiati op. 110 di Ponchielli” (good luck finding it!)

            On the American side, there is Henry Howey, profesor of low brass at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He’s spent time and money collecting and digitizing Ponchielli’s banda music, making his editions available on a handy website devoted to the subject.

            All very interesting, at least to me. I’m hoping we’ll see some better recordings of Ponchielli’s other operas and a complete survey of his work as bandleader. Time to get cracking on those Critical Editions!

            Fascinating figure.

            • Botched the link to the Centro Studi Amilcare Ponchielli, of course. Here it is:

            • And I just saw that Wikipedia already has a pretty thorough Ponchielli bibliography. Sorry for reinventing the wheel here.

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              Thank you M. Croche for all your info. I did look through that Sirch book and also Addio, fiorito asil. Il melodramma Italiano da Boito al Verismo by Rubens Tedeschi. Although it slights Ponchielli a bit, years ago and only remember bits and pieces. He wasn’t ONLY a banda composer (not that there’s anything wrong with that) he wrote quite a bit of religious music too! For all his evident insecurity he had a melodic gift, not quite matched by other things (but not bad).

              In the bibliography at Wikipedia are too many articles from Opera News. They are about as useful as studying used toilet paper for omens. Though come to think of it, if you know what to look for that can indicate colon cancer, and that about sums up Opera News.

              Thank you Grimoaldo, I’ve never listened to that complete recording of Marion Delorme (the story of my life) and now it’s quite expensive. But I love Denia Mazzola (Gavazzeni) and who doesn’t love Francisco Casanova? And thank you mesa for that youtube link.

              The Basiola aria comes from the centenary celebrations of Ponchielli in Cremona (sounds like a Cole Porter song from Kiss Me Kate) from which comes this collection of highlights of a life performance. It must have been thrilling, Cigna, Gigli, Pasero and Serafin conducting.

          • Virgilio Guardepassa

            The three most interesting books on your topic are by the late John Rosselli, an immensely knowledgeable and sadly missed authority on all things cultural, and Italian:

            “Music and Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Italy”
            “Singers of Italian Opera”
            “The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi”

            A nodding acquaintance with any of this material would eliminate a substantial amount of the potential for rampant speculation and snark.

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              I’ve mentioned all three books, also his Life of Verdi, here and on another list more than once, with great admiration. I will check them this weekend for specifics about La gioconda; I usually remember what I read and don’t remember his providing abundant detail about its genesis or the way it became (for a short time) a worldwide hit and for a long time a staple at the Metropolitan opera.

              Roselli is amazingly concise and cuts to the point absorbing a ton of documentation into a tight logical narrative. He does deal with realities of the “business” of opera with superb insight and telling detail without an agenda and never romanticizing a cutthroat, erratic, commercial enterprise.

              The biography of Verdi is probably the shortest but I think it’s still the best. He has precise (and documented) information on that composer’s origins and early life (a lot of lies Giuseppe told about himself for reasons of publicity are accepted even by serious biographers, without any digging into whether he was telling the truth). He also is the best informed about Verdi’s training (despite his insistence that he was a peasant — he wasn’t — from a dirt poor family — they weren’t poor -- and “self-taught” he was the best-trained composer of opera in 19th century Italy and the most sophisticated (Martucci, a superb musical intellect wrote mostly non-vocal music).

              Although he isn’t interested in the minutiae of Verdi’s private life (a complex, far from admirable one), Roselli is very penetrating on matters that relate to Verdi’s creative work.

              This is not “my” topic. Them that write as Hans Lick started a thread here and a lot of people jumped in. And in terms of material on-line there is very little about Ponchielli. In fact, I don’t think the Roselli books are referenced anywhere. And again I will look and see how much detail about La gioconda in particular they provide.

            • Hi there, V.G.:

              Even with the improved comment system on La Parterre, I can’t make out the intended recipient of your advice, or what is meant by “your topic”. John Rosselli was a terrific musicologist, of course, and pursued very important work on opera impresarios and the economic foundation of Italian opera from the 17th to the 19th century. So far as I recall, he didn’t have much of anything to say about Ponchielli, and the municipal banda would have been a bit outside the purview of his research. Could you clarify what you meant?

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              I checked Music and Musicians in Nineteenth-century Italy by the wonderful John Roselli. Ponchielli is mentioned only three times. One, his marriage to the prima donna Teresina Brambilla. The composer doesn’t matter, Roselli’s point is that large families loomed large in Italian opera, the Brambilli being a case in point. Later he cites one of Ponchielli’s obituaries by a critic who had a low opinion of him but to point out that in the wake of anti-Wagnerian sentiment in Italy the young school had abandoned Italian ways, especially melody (but Roselli does not cite what this critic says about Ponchielli except by implication that he trod the path of righteousness).

              About La Gioconda, Roselli cites it as a “typical” Italian “grand opera” influenced by French practice but shorter and in four rather than five acts. Period. I believe that point was made by grimoaldo early on in this thread.

              Then La Gioconda is in a list of Italian operas that became popular as opera evolved as a less elite and esoteric form of entertainment. Period.

              That’s one Roselli book down.

            • mrsjohnclaggart

              I have just checked John Roselli’s SINGERS OF ITALIAN OPERA — the history of a profession. THERE IS NO MENTION OF Ponchielli and La gioconda does not appear in the index — although Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti do. Skimming it one is reminded at how astute and brilliantly informed Roselli was about trends that shaped great, good, ordinary and on and off again careers, as well as careers in the chorus. He is sharp about fees, bribes, the tug between North vs. South in Italy, what were lucrative times for those established in the business (including those in the chorus) and what led to bad times even for stars, and how professionals survived those bad times. But NO info on La gioconda or its composer. And none on the banda, and Ponchielli’s life as a “municipal composer”.

      • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

        I’m not sure I’d take it to the proverbial desert island especially if there were numerical restrictions for carry-on, but I’m a big fan of GIOCONDA. Some random thoughts in no particular order on GIOCONDA:

        New York, specifically the Met, has been a hotbed of Gioconda-itis since it’s very first season (1883). It has been a continuing staple of the repertoire, rarely out of commission decade after decade, generation of singers after generation. This was NOT the case in many other international theatres where GIOCONDA ranged from the occasional revival every few decades (Scala and other Italian houses) to total rarity done in concert form a la Queler (London). A quick look at Operabase only shows 2 revivals in 2016: Gelsenkirchen and Santiago. But New Yorkers have always loved their GIOCONDA and it still endures.

        I cannot now find the specific quote but Maria Callas (herself a prominent Gioconda — her Italian debut in 1947, other staged performances plus 2 recordings) once condescendingly said something to the effect of: “Gioconda comes just close to the border of decent music.” Ever the contrarian, she also said if anyone wanted to understand what she was all about they had only to listen to the final side of her second, stereo GIOCONDA.

        The line (and stage direction) which always gets me is in the last act right after Laura awakens and is rapturously united with Enzo. Poor Gioconda. Heartbreaking, and the story of my life:

        avviluppandosi la testa nel suo manto
        (Nascondili, o tenebra!)

        One cannot recall the classic 1982 Marton/Bini disaster without mentioning Bunny Bini (Carlo’s doting sposa Inglese) and Mignon Dunn literally manhandling Bini and physically preventing him from leaving the stage. That performance, with its audience noisy participation (bordering on riot), onstage hijinks (also bordering on riot) and orchestral/conductorial mayhem came as close to a 3-ring circus or Marx Brothers movie as any I have ever seen in an opera house.