In the photographs from the last century he looks thoughtful, puzzled even.
His eyes seem to ask, "What did I do? And how do I do it again?"
Or he might be gazing into our century and asking, "Where do they find
Amilcare Ponchielli might well ask. If you're an opera-goer, when was the
last time you saw a good production of The Eternal Speaker, The Moors of
Valencia, The Prodigal Sons, or Mayor Babbeo? When did you even see a poor
one? How many recordings of The Spouse's Promise or The Two Binoculars ballet
do you own? How many times a day do you find yourself humming beloved arias
from The Lithuanians? Ponchielli never did figure out how to do it again;
"it" being La Gioconda. Actually the opera came fairly late in
his career. It was his one smash hit when it debuted at La Scala on April
8th of 1876.
The plot, based on a Victor Hugo story, pits the fiery street singer Gioconda
against the plotting of the Inquisition spy Barnaba. Spurned by Gioconda
(La to her friends), Barnaba attempts to have Gioconda's blind mother condemned
as a witch. Throw in the local Inquisition leader Alvise and his wife Laura,
add Gioconda's main squeeze the sea captain Enzo (secretly a banished nobleman
formerly in love with Laura, of course), crank up the band, and you've got
yourself a humdinger of an opera. Laura saves the blind mother from the
mob. The mother gives her a rosary in gratitude. Barnaba arranges to have
Laura discovered with Alvise to discredit Enzo. Our heroine almost skewers
Laura before she sees the rosary. Alves decides to murder Laura and orders
her to drink poison. Gioconda slips her a sleeping potion instead. Enzo
arrives to mourn Laura's death. He goes for Alves who has his guards seize
Enzo. Gioconda takes Laura to her own home and decides to kill herself.
Enzo arrives to do it for her, for stealing Laura's body. Laura wakes up.
She and Enzo scoot off. Gioconda defies Barnaba, hissing, "You wanted
my body, curséd demon, now take it." If you've seen one opera
or a hundred, you can probably figure out what comes next.
Anyway, the public went nuts. But similar to Hollywood, you're only as good
as your last opera. And the 43-year-old composer didn't seem to have another
hit in him. We might not remember Ponchielli's music as well as we do, except
for the fact that in Act III Alves throws a ball and entertains his guests
with a Dance of the Hours. In the next century the directors and animators
of the Disney studio used this music as a backdrop, while sinister but dapper
alligators tossed buoyant hippo ladies around like frisbees. Years later
a comedian named Allan Sherman gave lyrics to one of the melodies as he
sang a welcome to his muddah and faddah. Sometimes immortality really comes
out of left field.
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor
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