In the photographs from the last century he looks thoughtful, puzzled even. His eyes seem to ask, "What did I do? And how do I do it again?" Or he might be gazing into our century and asking, "Where do they find these people?"

Amilcare Ponchielli might well ask. If you're an opera-goer, when was the last time you saw a good production of The Eternal Speaker, The Moors of Valencia, The Prodigal Sons, or Mayor Babbeo? When did you even see a poor one? How many recordings of The Spouse's Promise or The Two Binoculars ballet do you own? How many times a day do you find yourself humming beloved arias from The Lithuanians? Ponchielli never did figure out how to do it again; "it" being La Gioconda. Actually the opera came fairly late in his career. It was his one smash hit when it debuted at La Scala on April 8th of 1876.

The plot, based on a Victor Hugo story, pits the fiery street singer Gioconda against the plotting of the Inquisition spy Barnaba. Spurned by Gioconda (La to her friends), Barnaba attempts to have Gioconda's blind mother condemned as a witch. Throw in the local Inquisition leader Alvise and his wife Laura, add Gioconda's main squeeze the sea captain Enzo (secretly a banished nobleman formerly in love with Laura, of course), crank up the band, and you've got yourself a humdinger of an opera. Laura saves the blind mother from the mob. The mother gives her a rosary in gratitude. Barnaba arranges to have Laura discovered with Alvise to discredit Enzo. Our heroine almost skewers Laura before she sees the rosary. Alves decides to murder Laura and orders her to drink poison. Gioconda slips her a sleeping potion instead. Enzo arrives to mourn Laura's death. He goes for Alves who has his guards seize Enzo. Gioconda takes Laura to her own home and decides to kill herself. Enzo arrives to do it for her, for stealing Laura's body. Laura wakes up. She and Enzo scoot off. Gioconda defies Barnaba, hissing, "You wanted my body, curséd demon, now take it." If you've seen one opera or a hundred, you can probably figure out what comes next.

Anyway, the public went nuts. But similar to Hollywood, you're only as good as your last opera. And the 43-year-old composer didn't seem to have another hit in him. We might not remember Ponchielli's music as well as we do, except for the fact that in Act III Alves throws a ball and entertains his guests with a Dance of the Hours. In the next century the directors and animators of the Disney studio used this music as a backdrop, while sinister but dapper alligators tossed buoyant hippo ladies around like frisbees. Years later a comedian named Allan Sherman gave lyrics to one of the melodies as he sang a welcome to his muddah and faddah. Sometimes immortality really comes out of left field.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor