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Riccardo Massi and Ermonela Jaho [Photo by Russell Duncan]
29 Nov 2015

Leoncavallo’s Zazà by Opera Rara

Charismatic charm, vivacious insouciance, fervent passion, dejected self-pity, blazing anger and stoic selflessness: Zazà — a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights — is a walking compendium of emotions.

Leoncavallo’s Zazà by Opera Rara

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Riccardo Massi and Ermonela Jaho [Photo by Russell Duncan]


Ruggero Leoncavallo’s eponymous opera lives by its heroine. Tackling this exhausting, and perilous, role at the Barbican Hall, Argentinian soprano Ermonela Jaho gave an absolutely fabulous performance, her range, warmth and total commitment ensuring that the hooker’s heart of gold shone winningly.

This concert performance of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by Opera Rara with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, saw the company make its maiden venture into verismo waters. Written in 1900, eight years after I Pagliacci, and first performed at the Teatro Lirico di Milano conducted by Toscanini, Zazà was initially a huge popular success. In the 20 years following its première, the opera received over 50 new productions in opera houses around the world and the title role became a show-case for a number of prima donnas, including Rosina Storchio (who created the role), Emma Carelli and Geraldine Farrar. The latter even selected it for her farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1922.

At the time of the premiere of Zazà, things must have looked auspicious for Leoncavallo. His career seemed to be on a roll: the acclaim received by his two previous operas, I Pagliacci (1892) and La Bohème (1897), suggested he was enjoying a golden streak. Now, though, Zazà — along with the almost all of Leoncavallo’s twenty or so operas and operettas — has fallen out of the repertoire. Pagliacci alone assures the longevity of the composer’s name, and even that opera rarely stands alone but is ‘coupled’, as ‘Pag’ to Mascagni’s ‘Cav’.

The libretto of Zazà is based upon a highly successful play by Pierre Breton and Charles Simon, written in 1898 for the flamboyant actress, Gabrielle Rejane. The action takes place in contemporary Saint-Étienne and Paris, and takes us back-stage at a seedy music-hall where we follow the emotional breakdown of the chanteuse Zazà when she discovers that the man whom she loves is already married.

The tale is predictably tawdry and trashy but it has a surprising, if somewhat syrupy, ending. The fêted cabaret star Zazà wins a bet with the journalist Bussy that she can seduce one of the frequent visitors to the theatre, Milio Dufresne — an international businessman on the prowl for a casual fling — even though he seems indifferent to her charms. Zazà’s fellow singer Cascart, smitten and rejected by the diva, reveals to the now infatuated Zazà that Milio is having an affair. Cascart and Anaide, the singer’s alcoholic mother, try to persuade her to leave Milio but Zazà refuses and determines to travel to Paris to confront him. Milio is in fact married and has a young daughter, Totò (an affectionate diminutive for Antonietta). When Zazà meets Totò she is overcome by, and identifies with, the child’s vulnerability, and recalls the unhappiness of her own childhood which she is anxious to spare Totò. Showing respectful deference to Madame Dufresne, whose essential goodness she recognises, Zazà returns to Saint-Etienne. When Milio follows her, the low-born courtesan — now a sadder but sager woman — surprises us, and perhaps herself, by demonstrating greater moral integrity than the high-born gentleman, and in so doing she exposes the cad’s callousness.

Leoncavallo’s score is a riot of vivid colour, bursting with infectious dance tunes and inventive musico-dramatic flourishes. It moves fluently between arioso and aria, the big numbers emerging naturally from the ebb and flow of the protagonists’ exchanges. Maurizio Benini encouraged the BBC Symphony Orchestra to relish the Italianate lusciousness and allowed us to appreciate Leoncavallo’s gift for orchestration. But, with the large orchestra — which included a ‘cabaret band’ placed stage left during Act 1 — pushed right to the fore of the stage, and Benini disinclined to restrain his players’ vitality, the singers were sometimes overpowered in the more conversational episodes, especially during the first Act when it was initially quite difficult to ascertain who was who in busy cabaret scenes. However, amid the Puccini-esque scraps and fragments, some terrific tunes emerge from the melodic cul-de-sacs, including one soaring upwelling of sentimentality that serves as a sort of leitmotif for Zazà's love, and Benini ensured that the lyric high-points packed their punch.

The orchestral theatricality was not always matched by the ‘staging’, though it’s hard to know what stage director Susannah Waters should have done given that the small front strip of stage available for the singers was strewn with music stands, and most of the cast, wearing modern evening dress, were pretty bound to their scores. There was some atmospheric lighting, the dazzling pinks of night-time revelry giving way to the cool green of morning sobriety, and some distinguishing of the setting — the cabaret band were replaced by a single piano in Dufresne’s apartment, upon which Totò does her daily practice. But only Jaho truly ‘lived’ her part, unstintingly using her voice, face and body to convey Zazà’s self-consuming passions and sentiments. The opera has only one off-stage women’s chorus — sung attractively by the ladies of the BBC Singers; it therefore seemed unnecessary to seat a full chorus behind the orchestra for the duration of the evening when for the most part they had little more to do than applaud the charming ‘Kiss Duet’ with which Zazà and Cascart entertain the night-club clientele. Totò is a spoken role and Leoncavallo supplies just light orchestral support for her dialogue, but while Julia Ferri’s enunciation of the lines was touching in its directness and openness, the over-amplification and wide reverberation surreally disembodied her voice from the dainty figure we saw before us.

But such minor misgivings were swept aside by Jaho’s incredible commitment and vocal allure. She ran the emotional gamut from predatory sensuality to euphoric happiness to anguished sorrow, utterly convincing us and drawing us into her tragic journey. The lower-lying passages may sometimes have made less impact, and occasionally Jaho strayed sharp at the top, but who cares when one is enveloped by surging, supply lyrical outpourings that are by turns glossily luxurious and exquisitely delicate.

A scheduled replacement for the indisposed Nicola Alaimo, Stephen Gaertner was excellent as Cascart, the rejected lover whose indignant vexation is out-weighted by his undiminished love. Gaertner was rare among the cast in singing securely off the score. He was commanding in his big arias, his rich, dark baritone rising powerfully above the orchestral roar; and his nuanced and expressive phrasing made for convincing interaction with Jaho in their duets. Cascart’s Act 4 show-stopper, ‘Zaza, piccola zingara’, was one of the high-lights of the evening.

As Dufresne, Riccardo Massi revealed a strong upper register capable of carrying a clear line, and the tenor’s phrasing was unfailingly intelligent and sensitive. But, I found his lower voice a little withheld and he had a tendency, initially at least, to approach notes from below. Massi cut an elegant figure but didn’t make much effort to ‘act’; that is, until Dufresne’s self-justifying Act 4 aria when Massi convincingly revealed the shallowness and self-pity of this bounder’s grumbles about the complexities of his messy romantic predicament. His lack of remorse was worthy of a Pinkerton.

A strong cast filled the smaller roles, with Nicky Spence (the impresario, Courtois) and Kathryn Rudge (Natalia, Zazà’s maid) making a particularly strong impression. Moving from the ranks of the BBC Singers, and stepping in at 24-hours’ notice to fill the indisposed Patricia Bardon’s shoes, Rebecca Lodge used her bright mezzo effectively to convey the boisterousness of the boozy Anaide, Zazà’s mother. Soprano Helen Neeves was a dignified Mme Dufresne, and as Floriana (a singer), Fflur Wyn sparkled in her Act 1 aria.

Perhaps a fully staged production is necessary to do justice to Zazà’s melodramatic excesses — although a concert performance at least spares us a mawkish ending. On this occasion, Jaho almost single-handedly provided passion and theatre sufficient to convince us of the veracity of the drama. At the close she seemed, understandably, drained somewhat dazed. She had powerfully engaged us all in Zazà’s agonising predicament and utterly deserved the admiring and affectionate adulation bestowed.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Zazà — Ermonela Jaho, Milio Dufresne — Riccardo Massi, Cascart — Stephen Gaertner, Anaide — Rebecca Lodge, Bussy — David Stout, Natalia — Kathryn Rudge, Floriana — Fflur Wyn, Courtois — Nicky Spence, Signora Dufresne — Helen Neeves, Duclou (a stage manager) — Simon Thorpe, Augusto (a waiter) — Christopher Turner, Il Signore — Robert Anthony Gardiner, Marco (the Dufrenes’ butler) — Edward Goater, Totò — Julia Ferri (spoken role); Susannah Waters — director, Maurizo Benini — conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers. Barbican Hall, London, Friday, 27 November 2015.

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