Callas in La Gioconda

Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (1876) bookended Callas’s greatest years. In 1947, she made her Italian début in the title rôle in Verona. There she met two men who would prove decisive for her life and career: The conductor Tullio Serafin and her future husband and manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini.

She made two commercial recordings of the opera, for Cetra in 1952 and for EMI in 1959. (The photo shows her during the 1959 sessions.) The EMI recording was set down immediately after she had left Meneghini, as news of her relationship with the shipowner Aristotle Onassis exploded in the press.

La Gioconda, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito based on Victor Hugo, is claptrap, much loved by fans of murk and truculence. (For Callas, Ponchielli’s music was “on the borderline of decent singing.”) Gioconda is a singer of ballads in love with a sea captain. For reasons of filial piety, she sacrifices her own happiness—that is, passes up chances to stab, poison, and bury alive her rival. Instead, she kills herself.

You need know no more.

The opera takes place in Venice, a city that Callas loved. For much of her life, she spoke Italian with the lilt of the Veneto, the region of Venice and Verona.

Callas’s 1952 recording of “Sucidio!” is a monumental thing, cast in molten-lava tones. But she was especially proud of this 1959 version—tamer, perhaps, but more inward and musically refined, with phrases and episodes beautifully knit together. The sessions found her in superb late-career voice. (She was 35 at the time.)

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