Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) is best known for his opera La Gioconda. This work is one of opera’s guilty pleasures. It’s libretto is so embarrassingly florid that Arrigo Boito who wrote it after a play by Victor 1Hugo couldn’t bring himself to put his name to it, so he rearranged the 10 letters of his first and last names to Tobia Gorrio. It and Boito’s Mefistofele are the only operas written between Donizetti and Puccini in the standard repertory that aren’t by Verdi. Incidentally, he wrote another good opera I Lituani that for an inexplicable reason is almost never performed.
Despite the silliness of its libretto, Gioconda continues to survive because of its abundance of good tunes. Everybody knows the ‘Dance of the Hours’ because of Walt Disney’s dancing alligators and hippopotamuses in the first version of Fantasia. There are also ostriches and elephants in comprimario roles.
But the opera also has great tunes for a Verdi type soprano, tenor, and baritone. The topic of this post is the tenor’s second act aria ‘Cielo e mar’ (Sky and sea). The tenor part (Enzo Grimaldo) calls for a spinto, but the romance can be successfully sung by almost any type of tenor, provided he has a good vocal line and solid high B flats. The aria is so popular that just about every tenor with access to a microphone has recorded it. Below are 20 versions of the aria, varying in quality from OK to great. At the bottom of this piece are the Italian lyrics followed by an English translation.
Beniamino Gigli was a lyric tenor whose voice was especially lovely. His technique was so good that he could sing spinto roles without damaging his lyric instrument. Gigli Cielo e mar.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi had a hugely successful career all over the world. I never cared for his sound which wavered in pitch, but mine is obviously a minority opinion given the success he enjoyed over a very long time. Lauri-Volpi Cielo e mar.
Pier Miranda Ferraro had a successful career based mainly in Italy, though he did appear in the Americas, but never at the Met. He had a solid spinto voice that allowed him to sing Verdi’s Otello about 300 times. This selection is taken from the complete recording of the opera that he made with Maria Callas. It belongs under the OK+ category. Ferraro Cielo e mar.
Jussi Björling could sing just about anything into a microphone better than just about anybody. He never sang Enzo onstage, but his recording of the romance is virtually perfect. Björling Cielo e mar.
Richard Tucker made his Met debut in 1945 as Enzo. At that time his voice was too light for the role. But over the next 10 years he morphed into a full fledged spinto. This recording is from a Met performance in 1959 when Tucker was at his vocal peak. By this time he had the right sound for all of the part. His high notes had so much ping that the glassware in Louis Sherry’s bar in the old Met had to be padded. Tucker Cielo e mar.
Giuseppe Di Stefano’s voice was at its best when this 1950 recording was made. One of the 20th century’s most beautiful voices started a premature decline when its owner was only 35 years old. The rendition is one of the finest ever memorialized. Di Stefano Cielo e mar.
Mario Lanza chose the movies over the Met, both he and the opera public were hurt by the bad decision. This recording shows what was lost. Lanza Cielo e mar.
Enzo Grimaldo was one of Franco Corelli’s best roles. He sang it at the Met 24 times between 1962 and 1968. Corelli Cielo e mar.
Carlo Bergonzi was famous for the excellence of his interpretations rather than the beauty of his voice. His excellent technique allowed him to stay at the top of his profession for more than 30 years. An outstanding artist. Bergonzi Cielo e mar.
Dramatic tenors can successfully negotiate this aria. The next three tenors are all heavy hitters.
Mario Del Monaco was the definitive Otello of the mid 20th century. His performance of the aria belies the charge that he could only sing forte and louder. This is a superb reading of the romance. Del Monaco Cielo e mar.
Giuseppe Giacomini was the only tenor I can think of who was better after age 50 than before. He was more than better after the half century mark – he was great. As for being a heavy hitter, if he were a baseball player his obps would be greater than 1.200. Giacomini Cielo e mar.
One doesn’t think of La Gioconda and Jon Vickers without a long pause as Wagner and Otello were his territory. I don’t know if the Canadian tenor ever sang the role onstage, but his commercial recording of the aria is sensitive and convincing. Vickers Cielo e mar.
Alfredo Kraus likely wouldn’t be found in the same city with La Gioconda, but his recording of the aria is first rate. His line is exquisite and he takes a diminuendo on the final B flat. Kraus Cielo e mar.
Salvatore Fisichella is a retired Sicilian tenor whose peak years were the 70s to the 90s. He appeared at most of the major houses. His Met career was limited to 5 performances of I Puritani in 1986. He wasn’t well received and never returned. I don’t know what the difficulty was as he had a beautiful lyric tenor with ringing high notes. Fisichella Cielo e mar.
Nicolai Gedda’s approach to the aria was distinctive and refined. His silvery sound, impeccable diction, and piano singing make his interpretation unique. Gedda Cielo e mar.
The final two tenors are still active. Rolando Villazon sang seemingly everywhere to great acclaim until his voice left him 10 years ago; he was only 35. He had surgery on his vocal cords in 2009 and returned to singing in 2010; but his voice is not what it was before his vocal crisis. Villazon Cielo e mar.
Finally, here’s Jonas Kaufmann. I was at his American debut in 2000 and didn’t even realize it. He was Cassio to Ben Heppner’s first attempt as Verdi’s Otello at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. All I remember of that performance is Heppner’s voice repeatedly cracking and Lucio Gallo excellent Iago. I thought he was great as Iago, the critics disagreed. This performance was the beginning of the end of Heppner’s career. SInce then Kaufmann has become, arguably, the leading tenor now active. He has moved into progressively heavier roles and recently sang his first Otello in London, to mixed reviews. He has seemingly given up on America. His last Met performance was the title role in Massenet’s Werther in 2014 and has none scheduled that I know of. His dark voice is used to great effect here. Kaufmann Cielo e mar.
Cielo e mar! L’etereo velo
splende come un santo altar.
L’angilo mio verra dal cielo?
L’angilo mio verra dal mare?
Qui l’attendo; ardente spira
oggi il vento dell’amor.
Ah! Quell’uom che vi sospira
vi conquide, o sogni d’or!
non appar nè suol nd monte.
L’orizzonte bacia l’onda!
L’onda bacia l’orizzonte!
Qui nell’ombra, ov’io mi giacio
coll’anelito del cor,
Vieni, o donna, vieni al bacio
della vita e dell’amor …
Sky and sea! The ethereal veil
Shines like a holy altar.
Will my angel come from sky?
Will my angel come from the sea?
I await here; ardently the wind
Of love breezes today.
Oh! That man who sighs,
Will vanquish, oh dreams of gold!
Through the dense atmosphere,
Appears neither earth nor mountain,
The horizon kisses the waves!
The waves kiss the horizon!
Here in the shade, where I lay
With the yearning of my heart,
Come, oh my Lady, come to the kiss
Of life and of love..