Ponchielli: La Gioconda
Violeta Urmana, mezzo-soprano (La Gioconda), Luciana D’Intino, mezzo-soprano (Laura), Elisabetta Fiorillo, mezzo-soprano (La Cieca), Placido Domingo, tenor (Enzo Grimaldo), Lado Ataneli, baritone (Barnaba), Roberto Scandiuzzi, bass (Alvise Badoero). Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, Munich Children’s Choir, Munich Radio Orchestra, Marcello Viotti, Conductor.
EMI 57451 2 (3 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 2:48:39

In an essay included in the booklet accompanying this new EMI recording of La Gioconda, George Hall quotes the American drama critic Eric Bentley who wrote: "It is as children and dreamers—one might melodramatically add: as neurotics and savages too—that we enjoy melodrama…Melodramatic acting, with its large gestures and grimaces and its declamatory speech, is not an exaggeration of our dreams but a duplication of them." I include this excerpt because it seems that participants in this EMI recording have taken Bentley’s words to heart, and attempted to create a dream-like interpretation of Ponchielli’s masterpiece. In my opinion, they’ve succeeded all too well, and much to the detriment of a compelling, if often maligned work.

A glance at the total time for the performance is instructive. At just a bit under two hours and fifty minutes, the EMI Gioconda is almost fifteen minutes longer than the first note-complete recording, the 1967 London release conducted by Lamberto Gardelli. And the performance, as conducted by Marcello Viotti, feels every bit of it. At times Viotti’s broad approach works very well, as in the start of Act II. There the conductor does a lovely job of bringing out the voices and colors of one of Italian opera’s most atmospheric introductions. But for the most part this Gioconda plods along with very little sense of tension or momentum. Matters are not helped by the inclusion of a few extra moments of silence after various "big numbers" in the work. Obviously, these pauses would be necessary in the theater. But in a recording they only serve to rob this performance of what little momentum it might have possessed. The recorded acoustic, which manages to be both closely-miked and overly resonant, adds to the lack of the sense of theater.

For the most part the singers do little to impart a sense of drama. The title role, written for a soprano, is sung by the Lithuanian mezzo, Violeta Urmana. Urmana has no difficulty negotiating the notes (no mean feat), and she has a warm, attractive voice. On the other hand, she offers very little in the way of characterization. Almost none of Gioconda’s desperation or passion is reflected in Ms. Urmana’s bland, generalized approach. All one need do is compare this Gioconda to those of Giannina Arrangi-Lombardi, Maria Callas, Anita Cerquetti, Zinka Milanov, and Renata Tebaldi, to see what is lacking in Violeta Urmana’s performance. I wonder how many times Ms. Urmana sang Gioconda in the theater before making this recording. Her performance indicates scant identification with one of the great soprano roles in the Italian repertoire.

On the other hand, Placido Domingo certainly performed Enzo on several occasions in the opera house. This is his first recording of the role. And even though the tenor was 61 at the time of this recording, he, among the principals, offers the best synthesis of vocal and dramatic expertise. I doubt that Domingo could, at this stage of his career, perform Enzo effectively in the opera house. But on this recording he is in fine voice and engages in more word-pointing than is his norm. It would be dishonest to say Domingo’s voice has the same opulence and freedom it had 20 years ago. It seems the tenor now resorts to a rather careful and more nasal vocal production in order to negotiate the music. Domingo’s fans will probably want this recording and I suspect they won’t be disappointed. But for me this Enzo falls below the work of such tenors on commercial recordings as Alessandro Granda, Mario del Monaco, and Carlo Bergonzi. And in live performances Domingo’s Enzo is surpassed by such artists as Richard Tucker and Franco Corelli.

Baritone Lado Ataneli is a disappointment as Barnaba. The voice has the right kind of dark, masculine quality for the role. But at least on this occasion Ataneli’s technique lets him down. High notes are effortful, the voice tends to lose its vibrato and color in extended passages, and he has real difficulty maintaining any kind of phrasing, or even connection from note to note. Perhaps because he was battling vocal difficulties Ataneli does little to delineate the character of this villain. In fact, Ataneli’s Barnaba is someone who inspires little hatred or fear. This Barnaba is just not competitive with those on other commercial recordings.

The less said about Roberto Scandiuzzi’s wobbly, unfocused Alvise, the better. On the other hand, mezzos Luciana d’Intino and Elisabetta Fiorillo give fine performances as Laura and La Cieca. But their worthy contributions are not enough to save a recording burdened with so many shortcomings. The Munich Radio Orchestra plays well, and the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio and Munich Children’s Chorus sing with tonal beauty, but without the kind of gusto and verbal incisiveness found in the older, Italian recordings.

Among currently available releases, I recommend the 1957 Decca/London, starring Anita Cerquetti, Giulietta Simionato, Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, and Cesare Siepi (available as a special import). Also a must is the 1931 EMI La Scala recording, starring Giannina Arangi-Lombardi in the title role. Some months ago I reviewed a superb Naxos remastering of this classic set. It would be wonderful if London would also see fit to bring back on CD the 1967 recording with Renata Tebaldi, Marilyn Horne, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill, and Nicola Ghiuselev. While not perfect, for me this recording offers the best overall combination of vocalism, drama, and sound quality. For the reasons already stated, the new EMI Gioconda is just not competitive.

K.M. (May 2003)