La Gioconda is an opera in four acts
by Amilcare Ponchielli set to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito,
based on Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, a play in prose by Victor Hugo,
dating from 1835. (This is the same source as Gaetano Rossi had used
for his libretto for Mercadante's Il giuramento in 1837).
First performed in 1876, La
Gioconda was a major success for Ponchielli, as well as the most
successful new Italian opera between Verdi's Aida (1871) and Otello
(1887). It is also a famous example of the Italian genre of Grande
opera, the equivalent of French Grand-Opéra.
Ponchielli revised the work several
times; the version that is played today was first given in 1880.
There are several complete recordings of the opera, and it is
regularly performed, especially in Italy. It is one of only a few
operas that features a principal role for each of the six major
La Gioconda was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on
8 April 1876. It was especially successful in its third and final
version first seen at the same theatre on 28 March 1880. The opera
had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 20 December
The opera's title translates as The Happy Woman, but is usually
given in English as The Ballad Singer. However, as this fails to
convey the irony inherent in the original, the Italian is usually
used. Each act of La Gioconda has a title.
Time: 17th century
The story revolves around a woman, Gioconda, who so loves her mother
that when Laura, her rival in love for the heart of Enzo, saves her
mother's life, Gioconda puts aside her own romantic love to repay
her. The villain Barnaba tries to seduce Gioconda, but she prefers
Act 1 The Lion's Mouth
The courtyard of the Doge's Palace
During Carnival celebrations before
Lent, while everyone else is preoccupied with a regatta, Barnaba, a
state spy, lustfully watches La Gioconda as she leads her blind
mother, La Cieca, across the Square. When his amorous advances are
firmly rejected, he exacts his revenge by denouncing the old lady as
a witch whose evil powers influenced the outcome of the gondola
race. It is only the intervention of a young sea captain that keeps
the angry mob at bay.
Calm is restored at the approach of
Alvise Badoero, a member of the Venetian Inquisition, and his wife,
Laura. Laura places La Cieca under her personal protection, and in
gratitude the old woman presents her with her most treasured
possession, a rosary. The sharp-eyed Barnaba notices furtive
behaviour between Laura and the sea captain indicating a secret
relationship. Recalling that Laura was engaged to the now banished
nobleman Enzo Grimaldo before her forced marriage to Alvise, Barnaba
realises that the sea captain is Enzo in disguise.
Barnaba confronts Enzo, who admits
his purpose in returning to Venice is to take Laura and begin a new
life elsewhere. Barnaba knows that Gioconda is also infatuated with
Enzo and he sees an opportunity to improve his chances with her by
assisting Enzo with his plan of elopement.
When Enzo has gone Barnaba dictates
a letter to Alvise revealing his wife's infidelity and the lovers'
plan of escape. He is unaware that he has been overheard by Gioconda.
The act ends with Barnaba dropping the letter into the Lion's Mouth,
where all secret information for the Inquisition is posted, while
Gioconda laments Enzo's perceived treachery, and the crowd returns
to its festivities.
Act 2 The Rosary
The deck of Enzo's ship
Enzo waits for Barnaba to row Laura
out from the city to his vessel. Their joyful reunion is
overshadowed by Laura's fears as she does not trust Barnaba.
Gradually Enzo is able to reassure her, and he leaves her on deck
while he goes to prepare for their departure.
La Gioconda has been following
Laura with the intention of exacting revenge from her rival. Alvise
and his armed men are also in hot pursuit, but as Gioconda is about
to stab Laura she sees her mother's rosary hanging round her neck
and has an instant change of heart. She hurries Laura into her boat
so that she can evade her pursuers.
Enzo returns to the deck to find
that Laura has fled leaving Gioconda triumphant. Furthermore
Alvise's men are rapidly approaching. He sets fire to the ship
rather than let it fall into the hands of his enemies before diving
into the lagoon.
Act 3 The Ca' d'Oro (House of
Laura has been captured, and her
vengeful husband insists she must die by poisoning herself
(effectively committing suicide and condemning herself to Hell).
Once again Gioconda has followed and has found her way into the
palace, this time with the intention of saving her rival. Finding
Laura alone Gioconda replaces the phial of poison with a powerful
drug which creates the appearance of death.
The second scene begins with Alvise
welcoming his fellow members of the nobility to the palace; Barnaba
and Enzo are amongst those present. Lavish entertainment is provided
and the act ends with the famous ballet number Dance of the Hours.
Act 4 The Orfano Canal
A crumbling ruin on the island of Giudecca
The mood of revelry is shattered as
a funeral bell begins to toll and the body of Laura is revealed
awaiting burial. A distraught Enzo flings off his disguise and is
promptly seized by Alvise's men. In exchange for Enzo's release from
prison, La Gioconda has agreed to give herself to Barnaba. When Enzo
is brought in, he is initially furious when Gioconda reveals that
she has had Laura's body brought from its tomb. He is about to stab
her when Laura's voice is heard and Gioconda's part in reuniting the
lovers becomes clear. Enzo and Laura make their escape, leaving La
Gioconda to face the horrors awaiting her with Barnaba. The
gondoliers' voices are heard in the distance telling that there are
corpses floating in the city. When Gioconda tries to leave, she is
caught by Barnaba. She then pretends to welcome his arrival, but
under cover of decking herself in her jewellery, seizes a dagger and
stabs herself to death. In frustrated rage Barnaba tries to
perpetrate one last act of evil, screaming at the lifeless body
“Last night your mother offended me. I drowned her!”
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