Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Captivating: Leoncavallo's Zaza on stage at Opera Holland Park

Johane Ansell as Floriana, Anne Sophie Duprels as Zazà, James Cleverton as Bussy and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
Johane Ansell as Floriana, Anne Sophie Duprels as Zazà, James Cleverton as Bussy and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
Leoncavallo Zaza; Anne Sophie Duprels, Joel Montero, Richard Burkhard, Louise Winter; dir: Marie Lambert, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Peter Robinson; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Leoncavallo's French music-hall drama receives a rare UK staging

Leoncavallo: Zaza - Joel Montero, Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park (Photo © Robert Workman)
Joel Montero, Anne Sophie Duprels - (Photo © Robert Workman)
Leoncavallo's Zaza returned to public attention in 2015 thanks to Opera Rara's recording (and associated concert performance) but this is an opera which cries out for a full staging, and now Opera Holland Park staged it handsomely in a new production by Marie Lambert, designed by Alyson Cummins and Camille Assaf with Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role (seen 18 July 2017). A large cast included Joel Montero as Milio, Louise Winter as Anaide, Richard Burkhard as Cascart, James Cleverton as Bussy, Johane Ansell as Floriana and Charne Rochford as Courtois, with Peter Robinson conducting the City of London Sinfonia.

The opera is set in and around a French music hall in the 1890s, and Act One is a complex, multilayered construction with both backstage and on-stage action. In the stage directions suggest a back-stage setting with a door leading to the music hall stage, with this providing glimpses of the entertainment when open. Marie Lambert's production chose a different route, with Alyson Cummins' set taking advantage of the full width of the Opera Holland Park stage. So we had the main back-stage area, with Zaza's dressing room down-stage, then stage right was the rear of the music hall stage with the stage performers and music hall audience half hidden in the far corner, with the back stage entrance stage left. The music hall entertainment was continuous, with some acts performed silently. Quite how much of this music hall entertainment you could see if you were sitting on the very right of the auditorium I am not sure. But the result gave us a wonderfully detailed feeling of being back-stage at the music hall, and thanks to Mark Jonathan's lighting and Lambert's blocking, we always knew which part of the action was the primary focus.

What Lambert could not disguise was that Act One of the opera is a busy, fussy construction full of cameos as if Leoncavallo (who had worked at a French music-hall in his youth) wanted to include as much background detail as possible. Lambert gave each of the minor players a strong character, so we soon got the feeling of who was whom. But the centre of attention was firmly on Anne Sophie Duprels's Zaza.


Charne Rochford as Courtois, Richard Burkhard as Cascart and John Cleverton as Bussy in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
Charne Rochford as Courtois, Richard Burkhard as Cascart and John Cleverton as Bussy in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
The piece requires a captivating performance from the singer of the title role, Leoncavallo's music does not quite do all the work. And Anne Sophie Duprels really did invest the character of Zaza with a depth and complexity which at first engaged and then deepened into a profound sympathy. The basics of the plot are a bit common-place (music-hall singer has affair with man who turns out to be married) and the opera rather relies on the colourful background to create an effect. But Duprels really captured our hearts, making Zaza's plight believable..

Key to the role is Zaza's relationships with those around her, whether it is her jealousy of her younger rival Floriana (a delightful Johane Ansell) which culminates in a wonderful spat, the half flirting with the writer Bussy (the charming James Cleverton), her love-hate relationship with her alcoholic mother Anaide (a wonderfully characterful Louise Winter) or her close friendship with Cascart, a former lover and current professional partner (a wonderfully rounded portrait from Richard Burkhard). But the essential engine of the opera is the relationship with the business man Milio (Joel Montero) with a sequence of rapturous duets culminating in the final one where she sends him packing.

Aida Ippolito as Totò in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
Aida Ippolito © Robert Workman
Duprels and Montero created a strongly passionate relationship yet believable relationship, helped by the fact that Montero's character is hardly love's young dream (he is a married business man) and the romance is very much in Zaza's head. Montero's Milio was a rather solid character, not a shit just someone who expected to be able to have a wife and a mistress in two separate lives. The real drama comes when Zaza breaks this barrier and in Act Two goes to Milio's house. When he finds out in Act Three he is horrified, but ultimately she lets him off. Montero's darkly resonant tenor lent substance to the character, and if he seemed to take time to warm up, by the time of the climactic love duet which concluded Act One he sang with darkly passionate tones.

Leoncavallo gives the other characters hardly more than cameos, though each gets a small moment. The exception is Cascart who is a more developed character, whom in Richard Burkard's performance we realise real cares for Zaza, whilst Zaza's mother Anaide is another significant presence, though here the character is hardly more than a sketch though warmly portrayed by Louise Winter. In the climactic scene in Milio's house, Joanne Marie Skillett was suitably icy as Milio's wife, whilst Aida Ippolito charmed as Milio's daughter Toto.

Zaza's dresser Natalie does not sing a lot, but Ellie Edmonds made her a constant, sympathetic presence, and Oliver Brignell was the porter, Marco. Charne Rocheford was the impresario Courtois, having to put up with all the antics of his performers, with Eddie Wade as Duclou.

The Opera Holland Park Chorus deserves a strong mention, providing many of the cameo performers in the music hall entertainment in Act One, as well as singing admirably, with stand-out roles from Michael Bradley as  Augusto, Alexandra Stenson as Claretta and Charlotte Hewett as Simonds.

Like many operas by members of the giovane scuola, the opera's default position was a melodic orchestral texture with dialogue above, and under Peter Robinson's direction the City of London Sinfonia drew out the beauties of Leoncavallo's rather luxuriant score.

Louise Winter as Anaide and Michael Bradley as Augusto in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
Louise Winter as Anaide and Michael Bradley as Augusto in Opera Holland Park’s production of Zazà, directed by Marie Lambert © Robert Workman
There is much to admire and enjoy in Leoncavallo's Zaza, but it is not an opera which plays itself and it requires strong advocacy. At Opera Holland Park it received a committed and thoroughly engaged performance from all concerned, really bringing out the drama with Marie Lambert's production admirably conveying the opera's delights.

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