During the nearly half century that followed the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco only two Italian operas not by Verdi entered the standard operatic repertoire – so complete was his dominance. The two survivors are Boito’s Mefistofele and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) was born in a small town near Cremona. He studied at the Milan Conservatory. He won a competition for a professorship at the conservatory at which he trained, but somehow was pushed aside. He won some notoriety as a bandmaster. The revised version of his opera I Promessi Sposi (based on Manzoni’s great novel) was successful and established him as a composer of opera. He eventually joined the faculty of the Milan Conservatory (also called the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory after its most famous rejected applicant) where Mascagni and Puccini were among his students.
Today Ponchielli’s reputation rests entirely on his opera La Gioconda. Written in 1876, it was revised latter in that year and again on 1879. It is the third version that is performed. The work is full of great numbers for soprano, mezzo, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass. But it is the ballet in the third act that is best known. It’s the one Disney made famous in the original version of Fantasia. The dancing ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants and alligators will be forever associated with the music. It comes near the end of Act 3, but is not the act’s finale as the Wikipedia article on the opera states. The act’s finale is the subject of the article.
The opera’s plot based on Victor Hugo’s play Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, a 1835 play in prose by Victor Hugo. The play had also served as the basis for Mercadante’s Il Giuramento in 1837. The libretto for Ponchielli’s opera was written by Arrigo Boito who must have been embarrassed by his florid lyrics which are best listened to without a translation so over the yardarm are the encounters. Instead of his name the libretto was credited to “Tobia Gorrio”, an acrostic rearranging the letters of his name.
The act’s actual finale, once you’ve banished the zoo from your brain, is a fine effort worthy of Verdi. The opera is remarkable for the tenor being in love with the mezzo rather than the soprano whose passion for the tenor is unrequited. The mezzo is unhappily married to the bass who aware of her desire for the tenor has her drink poison which the soprano exchanges for a draught that mimics death but allows eventual recovery. Don’t get too involved with the story; it’s best experienced with attention fixed on the music. The bass reveals the body of his “dead” wife to the consternation of everyone especially the tenor. The finale depicts the variegated emotions of all the players with compelling effectiveness. The cast of the 42 year old recording below includes Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti.