Ponchielli's most famous opera whisks the audience back to the magical, but at the same time, dangerous Venetian Republic of the 17th century. The piece's protagonist is a street singer named Gioconda. In spite of her name, which means “the jovial one”, her life takes a tragic turn owing to the intrigues of a diabolically evil figure who is hopelessly in love with her.
Ponchielli and Boito employ nearly every available trope of grand opéra: the carnival masquerade, the love triangle, unexpected twists, poison, a blind woman denounced as a witch, stirring crowd scenes – and dance: the best-known part of the opera is the ballet interlude the Dance of the Hours.
This work in the style of French and Italian grand opera premiered at the Erkel Theatre in a production directed by András Almási-Tóth.
THE CRITICS RESPOND:
“I liked the conceit that everything that is either good or bad comes from the sea. The Dance of the Hours was extremely successful, too.” (Tamás Márok, Tiszatáj online)
Enzo Grimaldo, the duke of Genoa, has been banned from Venice. He is in love with Laura, who has been married off to Alvise Badoero, a leader of the State Inquisitors. Enzo has returned to Venice in disguise, where a young courtesan named Gioconda has fallen in love with him. Gioconda, for her part, has attracted the amorous attentions of Barnaba, a spy with the Inquisition.
Act I – The Lion’s Mouth
In the court of the Venetian Doge’s palace, Barnaba watches the crowd flowing to the regatta. For him, all other people are simply tools to achieve his aims. However, there is one thing that he has not yet managed to obtain: Gioconda, with whom he is hopelessly in love. In his despair, he decides to use Gioconda’s blind mother, La Cieca, to bind the young woman to him.
Shouting hurrahs, the crowd accompanies the winner of the regatta to the square. Barnaba convinces Zuàne, one of the competitors, that the reason he lost is because La Cieca is a witch and put a hex on his vessel. Barnaba succeeds in inciting the crowd against her, and the attempts of Gioconda and Enzo, the object of her affections, to save the sightless woman from being lynched are no use. However, now arriving are Alvise and his wife, Laura – though she is wearing a mask, she and Enzo recognised each other. The lady comes to La Cieca’s defence, and her husband grants her request: the “witch” is to receive clemency. The grateful woman presents Laura with the gift of her rosary.
The square empties. Intrigued by Laura and Enzo’s behaviour, Barnaba discovers the identity of the brooding man: he is no Dalmatian sailor, but rather the prince of Genoa, who has been banned from Venice. Barnaba then reveals to Enzo that he works for the Council of Ten. Although repulsed by him, Enzo accepts his offer: that night, with Barnaba’s help, Enzo will run off with Laura.
After Enzo departs, Barnaba dictates a letter to the scribe informing Alvise that his wife is planning to abscond with Enzo that night. Unseen to him, Gioconda hears it all.
Act II – The Rosary
On a ship in the lagoon, Enzo awaits Laura. The lovers happily embrace. Enzo departs to check that the preparations for their flight are all set. Left alone, Laura prays for the Virgin Mother to help her in this dangerous juncture in her life. Gioconda arrives on the vessel and is about to kill her rival when she sees Alvise’s boat approaching and decides to let her competitor suffer the vengeance of her deceived husband. When she notices that Laura is wearing her mother’s rosary, though, she recognises Laura as their rescuer and herself helps Laura escape.
When Enzo returns, Gioconda lies to him that Laura’s love was not strong enough, so she left the ship. At the same time, she warns him that Alvise is approaching. Instead of fleeing, Enzo sets fire to his own ship.
Act III – The Ca’ d’Oro palace
Alvise is about to take vengeance on his wife, but when they face each other, he is not able to kill her. He nevertheless gives her poison and instructs her to end her own life. Gioconda listens in on them and, when Alvise leaves his wife to herself, takes the poison away from Laura and replaces it with a sedative that will make her appear dead.
In the ballroom, dancers entertain the guests with an unusual allegorical dance alluding to the passage of time, the Dance of the Hours. The funeral bell tolls. After learning that they are tolling for Laura, Enzo reveals himself: he is the prince of Genoa, whom Alvise has robbed of his homeland and his love. Overcome with despair, Gioconda swears an oath to Barnaba: if he helps rescue Enzo, she will give herself to the spy.
Act IV – The Orfano Canal
Gioconda has had the still-drugged Laura taken to her home. The unhappy woman considers suicide: the man she loves is in love with someone else, and her mother has vanished without a trace. Enzo arrives, completely unaware that Laura is still alive. Deeply enraged after Gioconda informs him that she has robbed his beloved’s body from the grave, he is about to strike her down, but then a feeble voice is heard in the background: Laura has regained consciousness. She recognises Gioconda as her rescuer, who now urges the loving couple to flee.
Left alone, Gioconda suddenly remembers her alliance with Barnaba. She prepares to flee, but it is too late: the spy has already arrived. The girl pretends to primp herself for the smitten Barnaba, and then suddenly shoots him. But the situation turns out to be a losing one for everyone, as the dying Barnaba cries out his final misdeed to Gioconda: he has strangled her mother. Gioconda is left alone with the vial of poison in her hand.