Excerpt number three

La Gioconda

                                                                                   Instability, Irony, and Jumps

Author’s Note: This excerpt from the biography centers on the revival of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda given for Zinka during the Metropolitan Opera’s 1952–53 season. It isn’t as eventful or incident-laden as other portions of the book, but the particular moment in the extraordinary career that it covers offered the author a splendid opportunity to explore, in his own words and those of many other authoritative observers, some of the tangible and intangible factors in addition to her voice that made her so glorious and unforgettable an artist. As it happens, the season in question opened with a new production/grand revival of Verdi’s La forza del destino in which she sang Leonora to the greatest possible acclaim. This accounts for her cited comparison of the roles of Leonora and Gioconda, her first two artistic concerns during 1952–53. Technical matters: the critics referred to only by surname in the text (because each has already been cited often before in the complete ms.) are all fully identified in the endnotes. Not thus identified but so familiar to the likely readers of this page that full-name references were not inserted are Met general manager Rudolf Bing, tenors Mario Del Monaco and Kurt Baum, mezzo Fedora Barbieri, contralto Jean Madeira, baritone Leonard Warren, and bass Cesare Siepi. Other important individuals among the dramatis personae are coach-accompanist-composer Bozidar Kunc, Zinka’s brother; pianist Aurora Mauro-Cottone DeCaro, her best friend; and Mikica (Mee-keet-sah), her beloved white Spitz. As lamented before, the program available for this site cannot handle certain diacriticals, and therefore the ‘z’ in Bozidar is missing its hacek, the marking that signals a pronunciation like that of the letter combination ‘zs’ in Zsa Zsa.

The excerpt:

On 16 December, Bing restored La Gioconda to the Metropolitan’s repertory for Zinka. Several of those whose positions required them to disapprove of the work (but who secretly enjoyed every minute of it anyway) were willing, like Downes, to admit that the old warhorse still "has a most astonishing vitality and romanticism" (1), or to rediscover, as Perkins did, its “elements of permanent appeal.” (2) The soprano herself was most articulate when explaining the difficulties and requirements of the role of Gioconda to Opera News: “When I studied Gioconda—first with the great soprano Milka Ternina and later in Prague with Fernando Carpi—I was always impressed by the instability of her character.” She is eloquent on the subject of the drama but, true singer that she is, cannot consider it apart from the vocalism: “Gioconda is not a mechanical role, but one which requires intense concentration on voice production and technique. It is an opera which tires the singer enormously. Heavy orchestration. Long, dramatic lines. The soprano almost loses her breath, singing, singing, singing. No other opera has such jumps. What could Ponchielli have thought when he wrote those jumps? Octave, octave-and-a-half, two octaves. This opera is full of them.” She provides examples, then continues: “Like Leonora, she is the victim of fate, but this does not make her uninteresting. Gioconda is most human, she has her moments of failing and suffers extremes of passion, which we hear in the jealousy duet with Laura and in the final scene when she admits to herself that she wishes Laura were dead. Gioconda even contemplates for a second the idea of killing her. The theme of the opera is certainly sacrifice. The villain tells the great truth about Gioconda when he says that Enzo loves her like a sister, but Laura come amante [as a lover]. We all know that the whole story turns around this fact, but this line is the key to the whole tone and feeling of Gioconda, and that feeling is irony.” (3)

If there was cause to marvel at the way she "propelled the rhetoric" of the great scene with Padre Guardiano in Forza, what Zinka did, every time out, with that of the whole melodramatic role of Ponchielli's street singer inspired genuine awe. (4) Though she "joined the majority who now and again deviated gaily from the pitch," she was nonetheless "sovereign artist" (5) and "incredible in [her] generous outpouring of tone, [showing] a mastery of the Italian style of singing…warmth and vitality and the natural ease of breathing," (6) all while she was “duly emotional in mien.” (7) Warren offered his familiar effulgent-voiced but ham-fisted Barnaba, “more convincing to the ear than to the eye.” (8)

Del Monaco (Enzo), Barbieri (Laura), Siepi (Alvise), and Madeira (Cieca), all strong voices, were new to their roles in New York. Everyone but the bass aroused complaints in addition to approbation, for the tenor rested his case on the loudest of all possible romanzas (“He forced consistently and never once sang a phrase with finesse”) (9), Madeira's future as the generation's foremost Erda was foretold in the sepulchral gloom of her "Voce di donna," and Barbieri couldn't manage the top of "Stella del marinar." However, all entered fervently into the vocal free-for-all this opera inevitably became from those moments in the first act when Milanov and Warren unveiled the full extent of their extraordinary tonal resources. The gooseflesh-raising old work provided triumphs for the whole cast, which was received ecstatically by a more than ordinarily noisy audience. The approval extended to Solov’s new choreography for the “Dance of the Hours,” and to the ballet’s soloists as well, though this was still the era when a critic, here Biancolli, could write with impunity of “the fetching little Negro dancer Janet Collins.” (10) Downes found that Collins’s “finished and admirable art…made the spectacle worthwhile,” and granted that Fausto Cleva, conducting Gioconda for the first time at the Met, wielded a “competent baton.” (11)

Madeira was one of the young American singers who openly adored Zinka. In later years, she wrote that "Zinka Milanov has been one of the greatest inspirations in my whole career. She always influenced my singing because I looked up to her as a friend and a colleague and a great artist. Her singing was and is a lesson to any young artist, which is what I was when I first sang the Cieca to her Gioconda. She urged me not to force on the aria and not to step forward when I came to the high note—as a matter of fact, she would step on my dress so I couldn't move forward! She always had kind and helpful advice on my road to the big roles. Zinka is a shining example to us all for great artistry and human warmth. We all love her." (12)

As Gioconda, she gave every reason to be loved. The opera itself flourished on this side of the Atlantic just because of her devotion to it. In the 1980s, Alan Blyth lamented, “In the United States and Italy, La Gioconda is part of the staple repertory; in Britain it still awaits a professional production in the postwar era.” Citing an earlier, positive evaluation of the work, Blyth continues, “I would plead an even stronger case for the piece. It seems to me, on repeated hearings, to present a telling picture of private grief and tragedy, that of Gioconda and her mother, against the public rejoicing around the Lido. The title role itself, in the hands of a great soprano, presents a truthful, rounded portrait of a woman hopelessly wronged.” (13)

Zinka Milanov in the title role of La Gioconda (Act 3, left, and Act 4, right)

One vainly attempts to define the mysterious alchemy that existed, from the beginning, between the real Croatian girl Zinka and the fictional Venetian girl Gioconda, but its effect on witnesses of every description was galvanizing. Chester Kallman, co-librettist (with the great poet W. H. Auden) of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress—which Bing was giving its American premiere later in the 1952–53 season—and his close friend David Protetch, who was at the time the personal physician of both Auden and Stravinsky, adored her unconditionally, though from a different perspective than Madeira's: "Long after the final curtain of La Gioconda they would go on shouting 'Brava Zinka!'" Robert Craft wrote of the two men in his memoirs. (14) Listening to the unflagging power of the sound Zinka poured forth from first to last as Ponchielli’s street singer, they must have agreed with Auden’s assertion that “Every high C accurately struck utterly demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.” (15)

Indeed, even (or perhaps particularly) when singing the role of this “woman hopelessly wronged,” the level of reassurance that all was right with the world Zinka provided through her fearless yet devotional manner and the flood of tone with which she filled the house was extraordinarily comforting. Comforting, at least, to those of a similar largeness of spirit who suffered no inner need to resist the primal in artistic expression and its resultant larger-than-life grandiloquence. A tendency toward timidity of feeling, toward a desire to minimize overt emotionalism in favor of some notion of refinement or studied histrionic realism instead of pure revelation, would lead an artist straight into denial of composer Ponchielli’s obvious intent, into rejection of the actuality in favor of an abstraction. In observers, any attempt to pervert the practicality of an opera like Gioconda by considering it in the theoretical light of “opera as drama” is invariably dangerous, precisely because a performance as elemental as Zinka’s would be the first to have to be discounted. Her directness of approach meant, to some sophisticates, that she was not interpreting but merely “presenting.” That this relieved the public of having to “interpret” her interpretation and allowed what she offered to go straight to its collective heart without the intellectual filtering necessary to the enjoyment of the work of certain other artists, was only a bad thing in ivory-tower or academic circles, or in the minds of those who thought that words, not music, were prima.

Along these lines, the distinguished American poet James Merrill wrote that for him, “Opera from the start was an education less musical than sentimental.” (16) Merrill strongly identified with certain female operatic characters (rather than with their interpreters), which not only allowed him to experience what he called “dreams of immolation and all-consuming love” but, apparently, also to feel a heady superiority to anyone whose consuming interest was in the singer of a role instead of the role itself. (17) It was understanding born of identification with the character of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the poet averred, that “all but made me who I was,” an anima-ridden man proud of his ability to “maintain dignity in the face of rejection.” In a real apples and oranges comparison, Merrill contrasted what he considered to be his own rarefied grasp of the essential “to the gestures adopted by, for example, Chester Kallman, who had modeled himself in boyhood upon the Wrong Soprano—on Zinka Milanov…with her queenly airs and clutch-and-dagger reflexes.” (18) Doubtless he meant to say “stagger” rather than “dagger,” but the illusory point he attempts to convey is that elevated (or theoretical) understanding is preferable to a lusty appreciation of the immediate and sensual as represented by the singing in opera of a voice such as Milanov’s or of the sheer primal appeal of an atavistic performing persona like hers. Later in the century, the playwright Terrence McNally would suffer from the same aesthetic myopia and would slander the same great artist in lieu of either opening his heart or routing his own artistic demons.

A more appropriate reaction was that of the young Dale Harris, who would eventually become one of the most respected of all commentators on the subject of opera, and who happened to arrive from England to take up residence in the U.S. on a "frightfully cold" December day in 1952. He told me that he raced directly from the ship, valises in hand, to the Metropolitan's box office to buy a ticket for the evening's opera, caring not a whit what it might be, even before seeking his lodging. He simply had to be in that house on his first night in America:

The work turned out to be La Gioconda with Zinka Milanov, and it was quite sold out. I had to stand in the cold in front of the theater and get a ticket from a scalper, spending a good bit more than my budget should have permitted. It was a great bargain at whatever the price, for I must say that there could have been no more breath stopping an introduction to New York for me. I understood at once why the opera had not been done in England almost forever. We had no such voice or anything close to it there, not one of our sopranos could have handled it. I saw and heard that the fables about Milanov which had wafted over the sea were entirely true. It was difficult to take in the fact that such a large, magnificent, beautiful voice — and one used with such confidence! — actually existed. Whatever she may have done in other parts, my heart was hers for that Gioconda, outsized, flamboyant, stunning. It was a revelation and I knew that I was in the right place. Having some of the other singers on the same evening, Del Monaco, Warren, Siepi, Barbieri, that was beyond anything that one could experience or had ever experienced in London. Later on, one discovered that routine and mediocrity could be had in New York as likely as anywhere else, but on my first night the whole thing was so grand, so caution-thrown-to-the-winds, so succulent, it was nearly unbearable delight. It wasn't Mozart or Verdi or Wagner and yet I still felt I had entered heaven. I owe Milanov for that, absolutely. (19)

Not just incidentally, the opera wasn’t a repertory staple in its native Italy, either (pace Blyth’s comment above). According to Barbieri, “In Europe Gioconda is rarely given for one reason only: too hard to cast! Although I have done dozens of Carmens and Amnerises, Azucenas and Dalilas, I have sung only ten Lauras.… Gioconda has to be omitted from the La Scala repertory because no cast can be assembled. I wonder if Americans know how lucky they are to have the Metropolitan, which is the only theater now that can cast this problem opera!” (20) At the first repeat performance, on Christmas night, Bing’s holiday largesse caused no change in cast, but for the Saturday matinee broadcast of 3 January 1953 he perversely provided Baum, in his only Enzo of the run, rather than Del Monaco or Tucker, between whom all the other Giocondas were divided.

The radio outing found Zinka at her most expansive and Warren at his most artificial. A lack of devout belief in the opera and its characters may not be fatal, but any feeling of superiority to the task at hand is exposed at once: "The baritone is at his wooliest when playing [librettist] Boito's spy. Something about the horror genre compels him to shudder, when he should leave that to us. Boito contrived an orgy of melodramatic incidents, but Warren's way seems overly stagy even for this piece." (21) Zinka, whose "Gioconda looms as the ultimate image of her stage persona and vocal manner," had no such troubles, and on this date offered "what is perhaps the most emotional, fully committed performance of her long broadcast career," which is saying plenty:

She may lurch at a top note or two (in the first act), may drive a final note off its bearings or terminate it with an unfriendly squawk (as Gioconda wars with Laura for Enzo's love), but when occasioned by zeal, are these not merit badges of a sort? One of her finest moments occurs when Gioconda acknowledges to herself the loss of Enzo to Laura. As Milanov fills Ponchielli's churning lines with splendid arcs of sound, the heroine's pain and sorrow are fully exposed—the soprano, too, has opened her heart to us. One expects Milanov to soar grandly over the third-act choral mass, but more welcome is the wide dynamic range of her singing, especially in the final act. "Suicidio" is a flamboyant example of her art. As seems appropriate to the theater, the reading is more expansive than in her celebrated recording; it holds baritonal chest tones, forte tones which almost burst their limits, and softer phrases as entrancing as remembered. In the abandon of her portrayal she flirts with danger throughout the afternoon. With Warren, we sense the mechanics behind his overt maneuvers, but the soprano's belief in the street singer is so complete, so well communicated, that surrender is our only possible response. Milanov and Gioconda are one, in large part because she, like Ponchielli, employs what Budden called (on the composer's part) "a certain disproportion of means to ends." (22)

Zinka now found that she was unable to leave the hotel for any reason (she particularly enjoyed taking Mikica for his walks and, when time permitted, preferred to do her grocery shopping personally) without being stopped a number of times on the street by admirers wanting an autograph or a brief chat. She also learned never to be without at least a pen in her purse, if not paper, for those encountering her unexpectedly and suddenly possessed of the desire for a souvenir were almost invariably lacking the tools for obtaining one. She was not unhappy with this turn of events and reacted with grace and warmth toward all but the pushiest supplicants. Those who would not concede that an encounter was terminated when she announced that she would now be on her way or who, worse yet, tried to follow along beside her and continue the contact, were likely to be shocked by the swiftness with which the warmth chilled. She had always attracted a certain amount of attention when out and about, but the great increase in her "recognition factor" around this time was noticed by everyone. "We couldn't get from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue on Fifty-seventh Street without twenty people stopping her, I swear," said Aurora. "Sometimes Bozidar or I would just have to walk the dog when Zinka was pressed for time and knew she wouldn't be able to limit the outing to just fifteen minutes." All of this was merely evidence that, following Gioconda, "The biggest thing that's happened at the Metropolitan Opera this season is the emergence of Zinka Milanov as an artist to rank with the 'greats' of the Golden Age. Milanov is acting with assurance and singing superbly. Her interpretation of the taxing role thrilled the audience. The 'bravos' that rang through the house were spontaneous. They came from excited music lovers who knew they were hearing something extraordinary. It was a rousing tribute to the Met's new queen." (23)

It was also after Gioconda that Taubman went to talk to her and draw her out on the differences between her singing now and when she had first come to the States:

She has gained enough detachment to concede that some of the [early] criticisms were justified. She admits that she took herself in hand some years ago and slaved to iron out the wrinkles in her voice. She worked determinedly to gain absolute control of it, to wipe out a tendency to sing sharp and to eliminate the tremolo. She is singing better today than at any time in her career. Was it work alone that brought on this improvement? Mme Milanov does not think so, although she confesses that it helped. The decisive factor, in her own opinion, has been the feeling of confidence brought on by whole-hearted acceptance of her singing. “How could I do my best those first years? I would go out on the stage full of uncertainty and fear. My heart was filled with wretchedness and tears. Whatever I seemed to do, my reward was very little money and abuse in the press. Why wouldn't I choke up? Of course, it is different now. I feel that there is confidence in me, and I am confident. Singing is a joy, not a torture.”…[Bing’s admiration] and his agreement to pay her a fee worthy of a ranking prima donna…enabled her to arrive at the composure she needed for serious work and for achievement of her full potential as an artist.…In the last analysis, [her] story reminds us again that some artists grow to maturity and success through work and pain. (24)


. 1 Olin Downes, New York Times, 17 December 1952.
. 2. Francis D. Perkins, New York Herald Tribune, 17 December 1952.
. 3. Zinka Milanov, “Gioconda Trio,” Opera News, 29 December 1952, p. 4.
. 4. “…propelled the rhetoric”: repeating a quotation used earlier in the chapter from which this excerpt is taken, a compliment paid by Met broadcast historian Paul Jackson on ZM’s 1952 Forza Leonora broadcast. (Jackson, Sign-Off for the Old Met, Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1997, pp. 190–91.)
. 5. Downes, op. cit.
. 6. Louis Biancolli, New York World –Telegram, 17 December 1952.
. 7. Perkins, op. cit.
. 8. Ibid.
. 9. Harriett Johnson, New York Post, 17 December 1952.
10. Biancolli, op. cit.
11. Downes, op. cit.
12. Jean Madeira, Bel Canto, vol. 11, Spring 1963, p. 11.
13. Alan Blyth, Opera on Record 3, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1984, p. 192.
14. Robert Craft, Small Craft Advisories: Critical Articles 1984-88, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989, p. 69. Protetch, just twenty-nine at the time of the Gioconda revival (Kallman was thirty-one), was destined to die at an even earlier age than his friend and also to be memorialized by Auden (“The Art of Healing: In Memoriam David Protetch, M.D.” [The New Yorker, 27 September 1969, p. 38.]
15. W. H. Auden, “Reflections on The Rake: Opera as a Medium,’ Opera News, 9 February 1953, p. 11.
16. Luke Carson, “James Merrill’s Manners and Elizabeth Bishop’s Dismay,” Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2004, p. 4.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Dale Harris, letter to the author, 20 April 1991.
20. Fedora Barbieri, “Gioconda Trio,” op. cit., p. 5.
21. Jackson, op. cit, p. 153.
22. Ibid., pp. 153–54.
23. John Chapman, New York Daily Mirror, 5 January 1953.
24. Howard Taubman, “A Rough Start,” New York Times, 28 December 1952.

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