After just hearing this London/Decca recording of Ponchielli's masterpiece one time, I'm convinced that it's the definative recording of the work. Make this your first Giaconda, if still not convinced or prefer to hear other voices try (inevitably) Maria Callas on the EMI recording, her "rival" Renata Tebaldi on another recording, Eva Marton or Violeta Urmana with Placido Domingo in a more recent recording. But this one is a true gem and you cannot ignore its value. First off all, the casting is inspired and these singers are at the top of their game. It's an all-star cast: Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballe, Sherill Milnes, Agnes Baltsa and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Each singer has a shining moment in the opera where the power and allure of their natural voices makes one highly excited about this opera, which has gone by the wayside and is no longer in most opera houses' repertoire. Which is sad because if well-performed, it's a powerful opera.
Pavarotti and Caballe sing the lovers. These two were never paired enough on recording, but the few times that they sang together there is genuine chemistry and fire! Caballe as the titular heroine (nickname Gioconda) is truly exceptional. While not singing at the level of Callas or Tebaldi, she holds her own with her unique voice, a superb mixture of ravishing pianissimi, beautiful tone, floating high notes, strong and dramatic chest voice, vertiginous scales, coloratura and dramatic touches. She shades her voice and utilizes her instrument to effectively depict the heroine's torment and she blows you away. Especially striking are the duets. Pavarotti's big, bright, blazing voice is tailor-made for this role. It's semi-heroic but mostly on the lyrical side. And Pavarotti's training in bel canto and Puccini enables him to make the role both thrilling and beautiful to hear. Especially noteworthy are the duets and solo arias for both Caballe and Pavarotti. Pavarotti's final duet is emotional. Caballe gives it her all in the dramatic "Suicidio!" the one aria that is still popular from this "ancient" work. What a voice! Her high register is electrifying and her lower voice is ably used for dramatic effect. Yes, she is primarily a bel canto singer but, like Sutherland, she had a voice that was bigger than the traditional ligh-lyric bel canto voice so she was successful in her portrayals of more dramatic operatic heroines which are heavier for the voice - Tosca, Aida, Norma, Madame Butterfly, etc. Her voice is huge, and I still think of her as a truly worthy interpretor of this role, just like Callas or Tebaldi before her.
Sherill Milnes in another great performance here. He was never trained in Europe and proved that Americans can sing just as great as the Europeans. Milnes' basso-cantante voice is darker than usual here, with powerful tones and superb musicality. Not one of his arias is a disappointment. Especially dramatic is his final scene in which he discovers that his love has killed herself. That cry of his! He's never sung better. While in other recordings he tends to sound a bit the same (Scarpia, Don Carlos in Forza Del Destino, Count Di Luna all sound similar to me when he sings them) he is self-conciously dramatic and changing his voice more so than in other performances. So if you're a fan of Sherill Milnes, this one is for you.
Agnes Baltsa fans will love her as La Cieca, the heroines blind mother. Baltsa sings with passion, dramatic declamation and easily adapts to the verisimo music, a welcome change from her bel canto and lyric repertoire. She holds her own and even seems to be trying to outshine Caballe. Baltsa has a rich, dark and huge voice, and I would imagine she could have sung soprano roles if she wanted to. But she is magnificent in her mezzo category, with a flair that is catchy. Look for other recordings of her including Carmen, Eboli in Don Carlos, Queen Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, Romeo in Bellini's Capuleti E Montechi, La Cenerontola, Dalilah in Saint Saens Samson et Dalilah, Venus in Tannhauser and others. She's perhaps the most flexible and versatile mezzo-soprano of all time.
Bartoletti conducts with clarity, distinct flair, passion, beauty and dramatic pull. The orchestra produces golden moments, rich both in melody and powerful drama. This is no doubt the best played score of La Giaconda. Ultimately, perhaps this opera will not appear on recording or on stage anymore. The vocal demands are too much for today's mostly lyric singers who cant act their parts to save thir lives. So, while you can, get this recording to treasure this bygone opera. Pavarotti is priceless, Caballe is the best Gioconda to my ears, Sherill Milnes is wonderful here and Agnes Baltsa is a mezzo goddess. A wonderful, wonderful opera.