Ponchielli's Career Maker: 'La Gioconda'

The opera's four acts are set in Venice in the 1600s.

ACT ONE opens in the royal courtyard. There's a yachting competition going on, and the mood is merry -- but not for long, as we soon meet Barnaba, the opera's ruthless villain. He's a spy for the state inquisition, and he's in love with the ballad singer Gioconda. She soon arrives in the square with her mother, to attend church services. Gioconda's mother is aging and blind. She's known simply as La Cieca, which means the Blind Woman.

Barnaba has had a lustful eye on Gioconda for quite a while, but with no luck. So, pleasant fellow that he is, he decides that if charm won't work, he'll get Gioconda with a nasty ploy. He convinces the superstitious crowd that La Cieca is a witch. The crowd turns threatening, but a confrontation is averted when Alvise Badoero arrives with his wife Laura. Alvise is Chief of the inquisition, and when he hears there's a witch present, he's about to send her off to a torture chamber.

But Laura notices that La Cieca is wearing rosary beads. She intervenes, and Alvise lightens up. He decides to let the old woman go. In gratitude, La Cieca gives Laura her rosary. Laura then recognizes someone in the crowd -- an old lover of hers, Enzo. He's a sea captain from the rival state of Genoa. It's dangerous for Enzo to be in Venice at all, so he's in disguise as a fisherman. He's also involved with Gioconda -- and the always-conniving Barnaba decides to use that to his advantage.

Barnaba knows Enzo and Laura are still in love, so he decides to put them back together and make Gioconda jealous. Barnaba arranges a meeting between Enzo and Laura, that night on Enzo's ship. He also sends word to Alvise that his wife is betraying him -- and with a Genoan, no less. That way, Barnaba can be sure that Enzo will soon be out of the picture. Gioconda eavesdrops on his plotting. When she learns that Enzo is in love with Laura, she's heartbroken, and sobs on her mother's shoulder as the first act ends.

ACT TWO begins at night, on Enzo's boat. As he's waiting for his supposedly secret meeting with Laura
he sings the well-known aria "Cielo e mar" -- "Sky and Sea." As he finishes, Barnaba's boat approaches, while Laura quietly comes aboard. After a passionate reunion, Enzo goes below, leaving the pious Laura on deck to pray.

Gioconda then sneaks onto the ship. She jealously confronts Laura and threatens to stab her. But as Gioconda draws her knife, she notices Laura's rosary. It's the same one that La Cieca gave to Laura in the first Act. Gioconda realizes that her rival is the woman who saved La Cieca from the inquisition.

Just then, Gioconda sees Barnaba approaching, hoping to catch Laura and Enzo together and turn them both over to Alvise. Gioconda gives her own boat to Laura, who escapes before Barnaba arrives. Enzo returns to the deck to find Gioconda instead of Laura -- and when he sees Barnaba's ship closing in, Enzo knows what's up. But he refuses to let his own vessel be captured. He and Gioconda set his boat on fire and escape into the night.

As ACT THREEbegins, in Alvise's palace, Barnaba has told Alvise about Laura's supposed infidelity. The jealous husband has prepared a bier, and now orders his wife to drink a vial of poison. He then leaves the room, saying that when he returns, he expects to find her dead.

But Gioconda has snuck into the palace, and still feels indebted to Laura. So Gioconda gives Laura a different concoction to drink. It will make her seem to be dead, when actually, she'll only be unconscious. Gioconda leaves, and Alvise returns to find Laura lying on the bier. It appears she has obeyed his orders.

The scene changes to a ballroom in the palace, where Alvise is casually entertaining guests -- with Laura lying, supposedly dead, in the next room. After the famous ballet "Dance of the Hours," Barnaba suddenly appears, dragging La Cieca behind him. Gioconda is also present, along with Enzo, who is still in disguise. La Cieca admits to sneaking into the house, but said she was only praying for the dead.

Hearing that, Enzo rushes into the adjoining room and sees Laura on the funeral bier. He tries to attack Alvise, but Barnaba's henchmen overpower him, and put him in chains. As the act ends, Gioconda goes to Barnaba and offers to give in to him if he'll arrange for Enzo's release.

ACT FOUR takes place in Gioconda's rundown home on one of Venice's islands. Two street singers arrive, carrying Laura, who is still unconscious. They put her on a couch, behind a screen. As they leave, Gioconda asks them to look for La Cieca, who is missing. Gioconda knows she'll soon be forced to give herself to Barnaba, and she sings of killing herself, in the dramatic aria "Suicidio."

Enzo arrives, mourning for Laura. When he learns that Gioconda has had Laura removed from her crypt, he's enraged. He's about to stab Gioconda, and she seems willing to die. But as he raises his dagger, Laura wakes up and calls out from behind the screen. Gioconda has arranged for a boat, and Enzo and Laura escape together.

Gioconda is alone again, and Barnaba shows up to collect his payment. But as he starts to take her in his arms, Gioconda stabs herself in the heart. Barnaba is furious, and tells Gioconda that he has just drowned her mother in a canal. But the news has no effect. Gioconda is already dead.