For some reason, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi is not nearly as famous today as her contemporaries Rosa Ponselle or Elisabeth Rethberg. After listening to this breaktaking recording, one wonders why. Her voice is certainly (and I say this with no hyperbole) one of the most beautiful of all time. Dark, rich, velvety, haunting, it is the kind of voice that makes you breathless for the next exquisite note. Arangi-Lombardi had a big career in Europe, and besides singing the 'usual' dramatic soprano repertoire, also sang a lot of bel canto heroines, such as Norma and Lucrezia Borgia.
This La Gioconda is a must-have. Arangi-Lombardi, besides being blessed with the exceptionally beautiful voice, gives a touching, vulnerable performance as the pathetic street singer. One could wish for a few more scenery-chewing fireworks, but overall it is a great performance. Only a few slightly flat top notes intrude into her otherwise perfect instrument.
Ebe Stignani is Laura. For years, Stignani could wow audiences simply by huffing and puffing and throwing forth her huge, overwhelming, lush, vibrato-less voice to the audience. Her characterization is always a bit on the matronly side, although it's not so bad here, as Laura is a sort of 'nothing' character.
As for the rest of the cast, Alessandro Granda is the kind of tenor where one listens, says "not too bad" and then promptly forgets him. His voice has a basically attractive timbre, but he's nothing that memorable. Camilla Rota is another in a long line of rather ho-hum Ciecas. Gaetano Viviani's rather harsh, vibrato-ridden Barnaba is somewhat unattractive vocally, but it is a very exciting performance.
Because Gioconda is often thought of as a 'singer's opera' one might be surprised to find Lorenzo Molajoli's conducting so lively and sensitive. The booklet suggests Molajoli was a pseudonym for Toscanini (the real Molajoli was a conductor at Scala for many years, but the theory is that Toscanini conducted under Molajoli's name). I find that doubtful. The two conductors have very different styles.
The remastering by Ward Marston is excellent, very clear and vivid. As an added bonus there are a smattering of songs/duets with Arangi-Lombardi at the end of the third disk. They are a mixed bag. She is painfully flat in "Casta diva", and her "Mira o Norma" with Stignani is strangely anti-septic -- the two divas are completely out-of-sync and thus the whole 'blending' of voices so crucial to this duet is lost. But "Come bello" from Lucrezia Borgia is so beautiful, so perfect, it's hard to hear anyone else sing it. And unlike many Italian dramatic sopranos, Arangi-Lombardi trills wonderfully. Her arias from Forza are also exquisite.