Opera Profile: Ponchielli’s Dark ‘La Gioconda’

By David Salazar

Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” which had its world premiere on April 8, 1876, has never been a major staple of the repertoire.

In the mid-1900s, the work, which was written by Arrigo Boito, was a vehicle for star sopranos and tenors due to its expansive arias and endlessly melodic passages. But in recent years, the work has garnered less interest overall. It is a truly dark opera with murder, suicide, sexual harassment, and all sorts of high-powered emotions. It’s melodies, as noted, are rich and memorable, making it a fascinating experience.

Short Plot Summary

The work is divided into four sections.

“The Lion’s Mouth” kicks off at the carnival celebrations before Lent with the hateful Barnaba making advances on Gioconda as she leads her mother La Cieca through the square. She rejects him and he avenges himself by proclaiming that La Cieca is a witch.

Alvise arrives to calm the crowd and puts La Cieca under his personal protection. The old lady presents his wife Laura with her most treasured possession, a rosary. Barnaba notices Laura and a young sea captain. He concludes that the sea captain is Enzo, a banished nobleman, in disguise. He confronts Enzo, who tells Barnaba that he plans to take Laura away from the village, as they were once betrothed but she was forced to marry Alvise. Barnaba, knowing that Gioconda is also in love with Enzo, writes a letter to Alvise denouncing the escape plan. Gioconda overhears his plan and Barnaba leaves the letter in the Lion’s Mouth, where all secret information for the Inquisition is posted.

“The Rosary” showcases Enzo and Laura reunited with the help of Barnaba. She does not trust the latter, but Enzo is unafraid. Gioconda has followed Laura and prepares to kill her but stops upon seeing her mother’s rosary. She hurries Laura into her boat so she can escape. Enzo sets fire to the ship to avoid getting caught.

“The House of Gold” sees Laura captured and in the hands of her hateful husband. She is condemned to committing suicide by poison. Gioconda sneaks into the castle and gives her a powerful drug that imitates the effects of poison without killing Laura. A celebration, at which Enzo arrives alongside Barnaba, is interrupted by the announcement of Laura’s death. Enzo reveals his identity and is captured by Alvise’s men.

“The Orfano Canal” is the final act. Here, Gioconda agrees to give herself to Barnaba for Enzo’s release from prison. Gioconda tells Enzo that she has brought Laura’s body out of the tomb; he is ready to stab her but then hears Laura’s voice. The two lovers make their escape and Gioconda stabs herself to avoid giving herself to Barnaba. Over her lifeless body, he reveals that he drowned her mother.

Famous Musical Passages

The dance of the hours is a touchstone of pop culture due to its appearance in Disney’s “Fantasia.”

But the other two pieces worthy of note as the title character’s famed “Suicidio” and the tenors glorious “Cielo e mar.”

Watch and Listen

Here is one of the most famous performances of the opera ever, starring Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto. The cast also includes Stefania Toczyska and Ferruccio Furlanetto.


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