La Gioconda is an opera in four acts by Amilcare Ponchielli to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Angelo by Victor Hugo. First performance: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1876.
La Gioconda was a major success for Ponchielli, especially in its third and latest version (Teatro alla Scala, Milan, March 28, 1880), as well as the greatest success in the history of Italian opera between Verdi's Aida (1871) and Otello (1887). It is also the most famous example of the Italian genre of Grande opera, the equivalent of French Grand-OpĂ¨ra.
There are many recordings of the opera, and it is frequently performed. It is one of only a few operas that features a principal role for each of the six major voice types.
Time: 17th century
Each act of "La Gioconda" has its separate title: Act I, "The Lionâ€™s 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.
"The Lionâ€™s Mouth." Grand courtyard of the Ducal palace, decorated for festivities. At back, the Giantâ€™s Stairway, and the Portico della carta, with a doorway leading to the interior of St. Mark's Church. On the left, the table of a public letter-writer. On the right, one of the historic Lionâ€™s Mouths, with the following inscription cut into the wall in black letters:
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 amid the 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 tender duet 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. 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. An opportunity soon arises. For, when the regatta is over, the crowd returns, bearing the victor in triumph. With them enter Zuane, the defeated contestant, Gioconda, and Enzo. Barnaba subtly insinuates to Zuane that La Cieca is a witch, who caused his defeat by sorcery. The report quickly spreads and 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, revealing Alvise and his wife Laura, who is masked. Alvise sternly commands an end to the rioting, then descends the stairs with Laura.
Barnaba, with the keenness that is his as chief spy of the Inquisition, observes that, through her mask, Laura is gazing intently at Enzo, and that Enzo, in spite of Lauraâ€™s 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 dâ€™angelo" (Voice of woman, or of angel), La Cieca thanks Laura and gives her a rosary, at the same time extending her hands over her in blessing. She also asks her name. Alviseâ€™s wife, still masked, and looking significantly in the direction of Enzo, answers, "Laura!"
"â€™Tis she!" exclaims Enzo.
Everyone, save Barnaba and Enzo, enters the church. The observant Barnaba has seen through Enzo's disguise as a sea captain and addresses him by his name and title, "Enzo Grimaldo, Prince of Santa Fior." He reveals the whole story: Enzo and Laura were betrothed, then separated, and Laura forced to wed Alvise. Though neither had seen the other again since the meeting a few moments before, their passion still is as strong as ever. Barnaba cynically explains that in order to obtain Gioconda for himself, he wishes to show her how false Enzo is, and promises him that he will arrange for Laura, on that night, to be aboard Enzoâ€™s 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 Lionâ€™s Mouth. At that moment Gioconda and La Cieca emerge from the church, and Gioconda, seeing Barnaba, hides with her mother behind a column. She overhears the spy dictate a letter to Isepo, informing an unspecified person that his wife plans to elope that evening with Enzo. Having thus learned that Enzo no longer loves her, Gioconda vanishes with her mother into the church. Barnaba drops the letter into the Lionâ€™s Mouth. Isepo goes. The spy, as keen in intellect as he is cruel and unrelenting in action, addresses in soliloquy the Dogeâ€™s palace. "O monumento! Regia e bolgia dogale!" (O monument, palace and den of the Doges).
The masquers and populace return, singing and dancing "La Furlana." In the church a monk and then the chorus chant. Gioconda and her mother come out. Gioconda laments that Enzo has forsaken her. La Cieca seeks to comfort her. In the church the chanting continues.
"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 and a rising moon. In front, a small altar of the Virgin, lit 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 sea-chanty in part a regular melody.
In a boat Barnaba and Isepo appear, disguised as fishermen. Barnaba sings a fishermanâ€™s ballad, "Ah! Pescator, affonda lâ€™esca" (Ah, fisherman, lower the net).
He has set his net for Enzo and Laura, as well as for Gioconda, as his words, "Some sweet siren, while youâ€™re 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 and 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 Laura, 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 her rival. The duet between the two women, who love Enzo, and in which each defies the other, "Lâ€™amo come il fulgor del creato" (I adore him as the light of creation), is the most dramatic aria 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 to escape. When Barnaba enters, his prey has evaded him. Gioconda has saved her. Barnaba hurries back to Alviseâ€™s 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 allowing his vessel to be captured, Enzo sets fire to it.
"The House of Gold." A room in Alviseâ€™s house. Alvise sings of the vengeance he will wreak upon Laura for her betrayal of his honour. "Si! morir ella deâ€™" (Yes, to die is her doom).
He summons Laura. Nocturnal serenaders are heard singing offstage, as they travel in gondolas along the canal. Alvise draws a curtain and reveals a funeral bier erected in the next chamber. He hands Laura a vial of quick-acting poison, telling her to drink it before the serenaders sing their last note. He will leave the room, and when the song ends, he will return to find her dead.
When he has gone, Gioconda, who, anticipating the fate that might befall the woman who 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 ends. Alvise re-entering, sees the empty vial on the table. He enters the funeral apartment for a brief moment. Laura is lying, seemingly 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 Alviseâ€™s 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 the eternal struggle between the powers of darkness and light.
Barnaba enters dragging 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 fĂŞte. The passing bell for the dead is heard slowly tolling. "For whom?" asks Enzo of Barnaba. "For Laura," is the reply. The guests shudder. "Dâ€™un vampiro fatal lâ€™ala fredda passo" (As if over our brows a vampireâ€™s 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.
"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 lit street. Two men advance, carrying Laura in their arms, 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, if he will help 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" (Suicide! the sole resource now left me). For a moment she even thinks of carrying out Alviseâ€™s vengeance by stabbing Laura and throwing her body into the water -- "for deep is yon lagoon."
Through the night a gondolierâ€™s voice calls in 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 Lauraâ€™s 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. She hopes for the ecstasy 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, the same tune as in Act III. Both Laura and Enzo now express their gratitude to Gioconda. The girl has provided everything for their escape: two of her friends will row them in a small boat to a larger, awaiting barque. What a blessing, after all, the rosary that an old blind woman bestowed upon the queenly Laura has proved to be. "Che vedo la! Il rosario!" (What I see there! The rosary!), sings Gioconda, while Enzo and Laura voice their thanks: "Sulle tue mani lâ€™anima tutta stempriamo in pianto" (Upon thy hand thy generous tears of sympathy are falling). The scene works up to a powerful climax.
Gioconda is alone once more, and remembers her agreement with Barnaba. She is ready to flee, 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.