14 Jan 2009


More than just three letters distinguishes "rarity" from "oddity." In opera, a rarity would be an admired work seldom performed.

Perhaps casting the singers poses problems, or the libretto is weak, or the whole style outdated. The oddity, however, pops up out of nowhere and the general response is, “Why?”

Pietro Mascagni’s Zanetto falls somewhere in between. At only about 40 minutes, the neglect of this work is no mystery. Some of the music is quite attractive, but the story would need some filing in to be called a sketch.

In Florence Sylvia, a courtesan of some years, steps out onto her balcony to sing of her boredom with life and love. A young minstrel stops below and sings a paean to love. Intrigued and attracted, Sylvia descends to chat the youth up; he tells her that he has heard that the beautiful courtesan Sylvia lives nearby. She realizes she has one more chance at love, but the boy’s idealized vision of herself prompts her to tell him to look elsewhere for his Sylvia, and as he wanders off, minstrelling away, she sheds a few tears of amorous regret.

Peter Tiboris, conducting the Bohuslav MartinĂº Philharmonic, selected a choral version of the prelude Mascagni composed for the opera. Three minutes of wordless beauty, this music promises more riches than the rest of the opera actually provides. The orchestral version of the prelude Mascagni later arranged comes after the opera on the disc. In between, Sylvia, a soprano, and Zanetto, a mezzo pants-role, basically exchange arias for 30 minutes. All of this music is pleasant without being especially memorable. If Zanetto’s music comes off better, probably the credit goes to Jennifer Larmore’s handsome tone and restrained characterization. Unfortunately, soprano Eilana Lappalainen has one of those large, acidic voices that can be entertaining live but that record very poorly indeed. Sylvia’s music suffers as a result.

The disc reaches 50 minutes by including the luscious intermezzo from L’amico Fritz and the umpteenth run-through of that from Cavalleria rusticana.

Perhaps another recording with a more appealing soprano would push Zanetto firmly into the “rarity” column.

Chris Mullins