Ponchielli's Career Maker: 'La Gioconda'

WOO-1328-la-gioconda-RAW-1-300Even the most devoted fans of classical music generally acknowledge that classical tunes seldom rival the biggest popular hits when it comes to widespread familiarity. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

For example, just about everyone recognizes the "Canon in D" by Johann Pachelbel when they hear it. Many can even name the piece -- "Wasn't that the Pachelbel Canon? Playing on the elevator?" -- though they might not know what a canon is, or have any idea who Pachelbel was or when he lived. You can also find the piece on any number of top ten lists, along with other ubiquitous classics, such as the dramatic "O Fortuna" movement from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and the somber piece widely known as the "Albinoni Adagio."

But, exactly which lists do compositions such as those turn up on? And which lists would you put them on? The answer may depend on whether you're a "glass-half-empty" or "glass-half-full" sort of person. If you fall on the more negative end of that spectrum, you might put those pieces on a list most composers would try to avoid: a top-ten list of classical "one-hit wonders." After all, how many other hits can you name by Pachelbel, Orff or Albinoni?

Yet, on the positive side, those same works also appear on lists of "the greatest hits of all time," where you might find them right next to masterpieces such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Handel's Messiah -- and that's the sort of company any composer would be proud to keep.

Even so, it might be tempting to dismiss composers known as "one-hit wonders" as lesser lights -- artists who never really made it to the big time. But didn't they? It's surely better to have written a single blockbuster than no hits at all. And Amilcare Ponchielli did just that and more, writing a single hit that's also an entire opera.

Ponchielli's La Gioconda is best known for one, catchy number -- the "Dance of the Hours" from Act Three. (Remember the Allan Sherman song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah?" Same tune.) Yet the opera also contains at least two hit arias. One is an anguished monologue about suicide ("Suicidio!") and the other is an aching love song ("Sky and Sea"). And the opera as whole has been a hit, as well. It's a vivid drama of lust and murder so over-the-top sensational that you can't help but love it -- one of opera's most delicious guilty pleasures.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Ponchielli's La Gioconda from the Bastille Opera in Paris, with soprano Violeta Urmana in the title role, tenor Marcelo Alvarez as Enzo and baritone Claudio Sgura as the arch-villain Barnaba.