Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Gioconda (Ponchielli)
La Gioconda -
(English title: The Ballad Singer)
An Opera by Amilcare Ponchielli
Opera in four acts by Ponchielli, libretto by Arrigo Boito, after Victor Hugos play, "Angelo, Tyrant of Padua." Boito signed the book with his anagram, "Tobia Gorrio." Produced in its original version, La Scala, Milan, April 8, 1876; and with a new version of the libretto in Genoa, December, 1876. London, Covent Garden, May 31, 1883. New York, December 20, 1883 (for details, see below); revived, Metropolitan Opera House, November 28, 1904, with Nordica, Homer, Edyth Walker, Caruso, Giraldoni, and Plançon; later with Destinn, Ober, and Amato.
LA GIOCONDA, a ballad singer
LA CIECA, her blind mother
ALVISE, one of the heads of the State Inquisition
LAURA, his wife
ENZO GRIMALDO, a Genoese noble
BARNABA, a spy of the Inquisition
ZUANE, a boatman
ISEPO, a public letter writer
Monks, senators, sailors, shipwrights, ladies, gentlemen, populace, maskers, guards, etc.
Time: 17th century.
Twenty-one years elapsed between the production of "La Gioconda" at the Metropolitan Opera House and its revival. Since its reawakening it has taken a good hold on the repertoire, which makes it difficult to explain why it should have been allowed to sleep so long. It may be that possibilities of casting it did not suggest themselves. Not always foes "Cielo e mar" flow as suavely from lips as it does from those of Caruso. Then, too, managers are superstitious, and may have hesitated to make re-trial of anything that had been attempted at that first season of opera at the Metropolitan, one of the most disastrous on record. Even Praxede Marcelline Kochanska (in other words Marcella Sembrich), who was a member of Henry E. Abbeys troupe was not re-engaged for this country, and did not reappear at the Metropolitan until fourteen years later.
"La Gioconda" was produced at that house December 20, 1883, with Christine Nilsson in the title role; Scalchi as La Cieca; Fursch-Madi as Laura; Stagno as Enzo; Del Puente as Barnaba; and Novare as Alvise. Cavalazzi, one of the leading dancers of her day, appeared in the "Danza delle Ore" (Dance of the Hours). It was a good performance, but Del Puente hardly was sinister enough for Barnaba, or Stagno distinguished enough in voice and personality for Enzo.
There was in the course of the performance an unusual occurrence and one that is interesting to hark back to. Nilsson had a voice of great beauty -- pure, limpid, flexible -- but not one conditioned to a severe dramatic strain. Fursch-Madi, on the other hand, had a large, powerful voice and a singularly dramatic temperament. When La Gioconda and Laura appeared in the great duet in the second act, "Lamo come il fulgor del creato" (I love him as the light of creation), Fursch-Madi, without great effort, "took away" this number from Mme. Nilsson, and completely eclipsed her. When the two singers came out in answer to the recalls, Mme. Nilsson, as etiquette demanded, was slightly in advance of the mezzo-soprano, for whom, however, most of the applause was intended. Mme. Fursch-Madi was a fine singer, but lacked the pleasing personality and appealing temperament that we spoiled Americans demand of our singers. She died, in extreme poverty and after a long illness, in a little hut on one of the Orange mountains in New Jersey, where an old chorus singer had given her shelter. She had appeared in many tragedies of the stage, but none more tragic than her own last hours.
Each act of "La Gioconda" has its separate title: Act I, "The Lions Mouth"; Act II, "The Rosary"; Act III, "The House of Gold,"; Act IV, "The Orfano Canal." The title of the opera can be translated as "The Ballad Singer," but the Italian title appears invariably to be used.
Act I. "The Lions Mouth." Grand courtyard of the Ducal palace, decorated for festivities. At back, the Giants Stairway, and the Portico della carta, with doorway leading to the interior of the church of St. Mark. On the left, the writing-table of a public letter-writer. On one side of the courtyard one of the historic Lions Mouths, with the following inscription cut in black letter into the wall:
FOR SECRET DENUNCIATIONS
TO THE INQUISITION
AGAINST ANY PERSON,
WITH IMPUNITY, SECRECY, AND
BENEFIT TO THE STATE.
It is a splendid afternoon in spring. The stage is filled with holiday-makers, monks, sailors, shipwrights, masquers, etc., and amidst they busy crowd are seen some Dalmatians and Moors.
Barnaba, leaning his back against a column, is watching the people. He has a small guitar, slung around his neck.
The populace gaily sings, "Feste e pane" (Sports and feasting). They dash away to watch the regatta, when Barnaba, coming forward, announces that it is about to begin. He watches them disdainfully. "Above their graves they are dancing!" he exclaims. Gioconda leads in La Cieca, her blind mother. There is a duet of much tenderness between them: "Figlia, che reggi il tremulo" (Daughter in thee my faltering steps).
Barnaba is in love with the ballad singer, who has several times repulsed him. For she is in love with Enzo a nobleman, who has been proscribed by the Venetian authorities, but is in the city in the disguise of a sea captain. His ship lies in the Fusina Lagoon.
Barnaba again presses his love upon the girl. She escapes from his grasp and runs away, leaving her mother seated by the church door. Barnaba is eager to get La Cieca into his power in order to compel Gioconda to yield to his sinister desires. Opportunity soon offers. For, now the regatta is over, the crowd returns bearing in triumph the victor in the contest. With them enter Zuane, the defeated contestant, Gioconda, and Enzo. Barnaba subtly insinuates to Zuane that La Cieca is a witch, who has caused his defeat by sorcery. The report quickly spreads among the defeated boatmans friends. The populace becomes excited. La Cieca is seized and dragged from the church steps. Enzo calls upon his sailors, who are in the crowd, to aid him in saving her.
At the moment of greatest commotion the palace doors swing open. From the head of the stairway where stand Alvise and his wife, Laura, who is masked, Alvise sternly commands an end to the rioting, then descends with laura.
Barnaba, with the keenness that is his as chief spy of the Inquisition, is quick to observe that, through her mask, Laura is gazing intently at Enzo, and that Enzo, in spite of Lauras mask, appears to have recognized her and to be deeply affected by her presence. Gioconda kneels before Alvise and prays for mercy for her mother. When Laura also intercedes for La Cieca, Alvise immediately orders her freed. In one of the most expressive airs of the opera, "Voce di donna, o d angelo" (Voice thine of woman, or angel fair), La Cieca thanks Laura and gives to her a rosary, at the same time extending her hands over her in blessing.
She also asks her name. Alvises wife, still masked, and looking significantly in the direction of Enzo, answers, "Laura!"
"Tis she!" exclaims Enzo.
The episode has been observed by Barnaba, who, when all the other save Enzo have entered the church, goes up to him, and, despite his disguise as a sea captain, addresses him by his name and title, "Enzo Grimaldo, Prince of Santa Fior."
The spy knows the whole story. Enzo and Laura were betrothed. Although they were separated and she obliged to wed Alvise, and neither had seen the other since then, until the meeting a few moments before, their passion still is as strong as ever. Barnaba, cynically explaining that, in order to obtain Gioconda for himself, he wishes to show her how false Enzo is, promises him that he will arrange for Laura, on that night, to be aboard Enzos vessel, ready to escape with him to sea.
Enzo departs. Barnaba summons one of his tools. Isepo, the public letter-writer, whose stand is near the Lions Mouth. At that moment Gioconda and La Cieca emerge from the church, and Gioconda, seeing Barnaba, swiftly draws her mother behind a column, where the are hidden from view. The girl hears the spy dictate to Isepo a letter, for whom intended she does not know, informing someone that his wife plans to elope that evening with Enzo. Having thus learned that Enzo no longer loves her, she vanishes with her mother into the church. Barnaba drops the letter into the Lions Mouth. Isepo goes. The spy, as keen in intellect as he is cruel and unrelenting in action, addresses in soliloquy the Doges palace. "O monumento! Regia e bolgia dogale!" (O mighty monument, palace and den of the Doges).
The masquers and populace return. They are singing. They dance "La Furlana." In the church a monk and then the chorus chant. Gioconda and her mother come out. Gioconda laments that Enzo should have forsaken her. La Cieca seeks to comfort her. In the church the chanting continues.
Act II. "The Rosary." Night. A brigantine, showing its starboard side. In front, the deserted bank of an uninhabited island in the Fusina Lagoon. In the farthest distance, the sky and the lagoon. A few stars visible. On the right, a cloud, above which the moon is rising. In front, a small altar of the Virgin, lighted by a red lamp. The name of the brigantine -- "Hecate" -- painted on the prow. Lanterns on the deck.
At the rising of the curtain sailors are discovered; some seated on the deck, others standing in groups, each with a speaking trumpet. Several cabin boys are seen, some clinging to the shrouds, some seated. Remaining thus grouped they sing a Marinaresca, in part a sailors "chanty," in part a regular melody.
In a boat Barnaba appears with Isepo. They are disguised as fishermen. Barnaba sings a fishermans ballad, "Ah! Pescator, affonda lesca" (Fisher-boy, thy net now lower).
He has set his net for Enzo and Laura, as well as for Gioconda, as his words, "Some sweet siren, while youre drifting, in your net will coyly hide," imply. The song falls weirdly upon the night. The scene is full of "atmosphere."
Enzo comes up on deck, gives a few orders; the crew go below. He then sings the famous "Cielo! e mar!" (O sky, and sea) -- an impassioned voicing of his love for her whom he awaits. The scene, the moon having emerged from behind a bank of clouds, is of great beauty.
A boat approaches. In it Barnaba brings Laura to enzo. There is a rapturous greeting. They are to sail away as soon as the setting of the moon will enable the ship to depart undetected. There is distant singing. Enzo goes below. Laura kneels before the shrine and prays, "Stella del mariner! Vergine santa!" (Star of the mariner! Virgin most holy).
Gioconda steals on board and confronts rival. The duet between the two women, who love Enzo, and in which each defies the other, "Lamo come il fulgor del creato" (I adore him as the light of creation), is the most dramatic number in the score.
Gioconda is about to stab Laura, but stops suddenly and, seizing her with one hand, points with the other out over the lagoon, where a boat bearing Alvise and his armed followers is seen approaching. Laura implores the Virgin for aid. In doing so she lifts up the rosary given to her by La Cieca. Through it Gioconda recognizes in Laura the masked lady who saved her mother from the vengeance of the mob. Swiftly the girl summons the boat of two friendly boatmen who have brought her tinder, and bids Laura make good her escape. When Barnaba enters, his prey has evaded him. Gioconda has saved her. Barnaba hurries back to Alvises galley, and, pointing to the fugitive boat in the distance, bids the galley start in pursuit.
Enzo comes on deck. Instead of Laura he finds Gioconda. There is a dramatic scene between them. Venetian galleys are seen approaching. Rather than that his vessel shall be captured by them, Enzo sets fire to it.
Act III. "The House of Gold." A room in Alvises house. Alvise sings of the vengeance he will wreak upon Laura for her betrayal of his honour. "Si! morir ella de" (Yes, to die is her doom).
He summons Laura. Nocturnal serenaders are hard singing without, as they wend their way in gondolas along the canal. Alvise draws the curtains from before a doorway and points to a funeral bier erected in the chamber beyond. To Laura he hands a vial of swift poison. She must drain it before the last note of the serenade they now hear has died away. He will leave her. The chorus ended, he will return to find her dead.
When he has gone, Gioconda, who, anticipating the fate that might befall the woman who has saved her mother, has been in hiding in the palace, hastens to Laura, and hands her a flask containing a narcotic that will create the semblance of death. Laura drinks it, and disappears through the curtains into the funeral chamber. Gioconda pours the poison from the vial into her own flask, and leaves the empty vial on the table.
The serenade ceases. Alvise re-entering, sees the empty vial on the table. He enters the funeral apartment for a brief moment. Laura is lying as one dead upon the bier. He believes that he has been obeyed and that Laura has drained the vial of poison.
The scene changes to a great hall in Alvises house, where he is receiving his guests. Here occurs the "Dance of the Hours," a ballet suite which, in costume changes, light effects and choreography represents the hours of dawn, day, evening, and night. It is also intended to symbolize, in its mimic action, the eternal struggle between the powers of darkness and light.
Barnaba enters, dragging in with him La Cieca, whom he has found concealed in the house. Enzo also has managed to gain admittance. La Cieca, questioned as to her purpose in the House of Gold, answers, "For her, just dead, I prayed." A hush falls upon the fête. The passing bell for the dead is heard slowly tolling. "For whom?" asks Enzo of Barnaba. "For Laura," is the reply. The guests shudder. "Dun vampiro fatal lala fredda passo" (As if over our brows a vampires wing had passed), chants the chorus. "Gia ti vedo immota e smorta" (I behold thee motionless and pallid), sings Enzo. Barnaba, Gioconda, La Cieca, and Alvise add their voices to an ensemble of great power. Alvise draws back the curtains of the funeral chamber, which also gives upon the festival hall. He points to Laura extended upon the bier. Enzo, brandishing a poniard, rushes upon Alvise, but is seized by guards.
Act IV. "The Orfano Canal." The vestibule of a ruined palace on the island of Giudeca. In the right-hand corner an opened screen, behind which is a bed. Large porch at back, through which are seen the lagoon, and, in the distance, the square of Saint Mark, brilliantly illuminated. A picture of the Virgin and a crucifix hang against the wall. Table and couch; on the table a lamp and a lighted lantern; the flask of poison and a dagger. On a couch are various articles of mock jewelry belonging to Gioconda.
On the right of the scene a long, dimly lighted street. From the end two men advance, carrying in their arms Laura, who is enveloped in a black cloak. The two cantori (street singers) knock at the door. It is opened by Gioconda, who motions them to place their burden upon the couch behind the screen. As they go, she pleads with them to search for her mother, whom she has not been able to find since the scene in the House of Gold.
She is alone. Her love for Enzo, greater than her jealousy of Laura, has prompted her to promise Barnaba that she will give herself to him, it he will aid Enzo to escape from prison and guide him to the Orfano Canal. Now, however, despair seizes her. In a dramatic soliloquy -- a "terrible song," it has been called -- she invokes suicide. "Suicidio!. . . in questi fieri momenti to sol mi resti" (Aye, suicide, the sole resource now left me). For a moment she even thinks of carrying out Alvises vengeance by stabbing Laura and throwing her body into the water -- "for deep is yon lagoon."
Through the night a gondoliers voice call sin the distance over the water" "Ho! gondolier! Hast thou any fresh tidings?" another voice, also distant: "In the Orfano Canal there are corpses."
In despair Gioconda throws herself down weeping near the table. Enzo enters. In a tense scene Gioconda excites his rage by telling him that she has had Lauras body removed from the burial vault and that he will not find it there. He seizes her. His poniard already is poised for the thrust. Hers -- so she hopes -- is to be the ecstacy of dying by his hand!
At that moment, however, the voice of Laura, who is coming out of the narcotic, calls, "Enzo!" He rushes to her, and embraces her. In the distance is heard a chorus singing a serenade. It is the same song, before the end of which Alvise had bidden Laura drain the poison. Both Laura and Enzo now pour out words of gratitude to Gioconda. The girl has provided everything for flight. A boat, propelled by two of her friends, is ready to convey them to a barque, which awaits them. What a blessing, after all, the rosary, bestowed upon the queenly Laura by an old blind woman has proved to be. "Che vedo la! I1 rosario!" (What see I there! Tis the rosary!). Thus sings Gioconda, while Enzo and Laura voice their thanks: "Sulle tue mani lanima tutta stempriamo in pianto" (Upon thy hand thy generous tears of sympathy are falling). The scene works up to a powerful climax.
Once more Gioconda is alone. The thought of her compact with Barnaba comes over her. She starts to flee the spot, when the spy himself appears in the doorway. Pretending that she wishes to adorn herself for him, she begins putting on the mock jewelry, and, utilizing the opportunity that brings her near the table, seizes the dagger that is lying on it.
"Gioconda is thine!" she cries, facing Barnaba, then stabs herself to the heart.
Bending over the prostrate form, the spy furiously shouts into her ear, "Last night they mother did offend me. I have strangled her!" But no one hears him. La Gioconda is dead. With a cry of rage, he rushes down the street.