Sunday 29 November 2015

Capturing hearts - Ermonela Jaho as Leoncavallo's Zaza

David Stout, Nicky Spence, Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
David Stout, Nicky Spence, Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
Leoncavallo Zaza 
Ermonela Jaho, Rebecca Lodge (replacing Patricia Bardon), Fflur Wyn, Kathryn Rudge, Riccardo Massi, Stephen Gaertner, David Stout, Simon Thorpe, Edward Goater, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Nicky Spence, Helen Neeves, Julia Ferri, Eleanor Minney, Margaret Cameron; Stage director Susannah Waters, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Maurizo Benini; Opera Rara at the Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 28 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Ermonela Jaho captures hearts as Leoncavallo's Zaza, the actress disappointed in love

Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra
(c) Russell Duncan
A packed Baribican Hall was on hand to hear a rare revival of Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera Zaza presented by Opera Rara and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Maurizio Benini conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers with a cast including Ermonela Jaho in the title role, Rebecca Lodge (replacing Patricia Bardon), Fflur Wyn, Kathryn Rudge, Riccardo Massi, Stephen Gaertner, David Stout, Simon Thorpe, Edward Goater, Christopher Turner, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Nicky Spence, Helen Neeves, Julia Ferri, Eleanor Minney and Margaret Cameron. The concert performance was given in an imaginative demi-semi staging directed by Susannah Waters.

Leoncavallo's Zaza was premiered in 1900, when Arturo Toscanini conducted at Milan's Teatro Lirico. Leoncavallo had already composed his best known opera Pagliacci (premiered 1892) as well as his only other opera to have made a slight in road into the repertoire, La Boheme (premiered 1897). Zaza is based on a play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, with Leoncavallo writing his own libretto. The work is set in the world of the French cafe-concert with the title role, Zaza, being a singer in a cafe-concert (music hall) who falls in love with a rich man only to discover that he is married. Leoncavallo's recreation of the cafe-concert milieu has added authenticity because in the 1880's the young Leoncavallo lived in France and played the piano in such establishments.

Christoper Turner, Rebecca Lodge, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
Christoper Turner, Rebecca Lodge, Ermonela Jaho
& BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
Act One takes place in The Alcazar, a cafe-concert in St. Etienne in the 1890's and the whole scene is back-stage with a banda and giving us off-stage hints at the entertainments taking place. At the Barbican the banda (some 11 players) was stage left complete with a small stage on which singers performed their turns, whilst the back-stage area where all the action took place was stage right.

From the opening bustle with the bewildering number of different small roles, the opera which immediately sprang to mind was Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Though that piece is set in the 17th century, both have a French actress as heroine with a fundamentally back-stage milieu, complete with an array of actors, actresses and theatre personnel. And there are parallels in the way both play out, both heroines fall in love with a distinguished man from a higher class who plays fast and loose, and both have a colleague who acts as confidante but who is really in love with her. Both end in tragedy, but whereas Adriana dies, Zaza is simply broken hearted and you know that she will go on. In fact Adriana Lecouvreur was premiered in 1902, two years after Leoncavallo's opera but at the same theatre, which rather makes you think.

Leoncavallo's musical style is resolutely conversational, keeping the performance as realistic as possible. His characters never express emotion in huge time stopping arias, what lyrical moments there are usually arise from the drama (in act one we hear excerpts from the cafe concert entertainments). The opera's best known number is Cascart's aria in Act Four which is sung to try and cheer Zaza up after she has parted from her lover Milio. But Leoncavallo's busy texture is full of little tunes, and if he seems to have lacked Puccini's felicity for creating a memorable melody he still was able to produce lots of short melodic fragments which flower and then disappear. And the varieties of instrumental texture in the opera is remarkable. Though using a large orchestra, Leoncavallo is not frightened of slimming his forces down.

Ruggero Leoncavallo
Ruggero Leoncavallo
The plot is wafer thin. At the cafe concert, Zaza (Ermonella Jaho) is flirting with friends as she prepares to go on with her performing partner (and former lover) Cascart (Stephen Gaertner). Amongst the motley crew backstage are her mother Anaide (Rebecca Lodge), her maid Natalia (Kathryn Rudge), singers Floriana (Fflur Wyn), Cascart (Stephen Gaertner), Claretta (Eleanor Minney), Simona (Margaret Cameron), a journalist Bussy (David Stout), Courtois the impresario (Nicky Spence), another gentleman (Robert Anthony Gardiner), a waiter (Christopher Turner), and a businessman Milio Dufresne (Riccardo Massi). Zaza flirts with everyone, is generally badly behaved and bets with Bussy that she can't seduce the newcomer Milio Dufresne. Dufresne resists, but succumbs by the end of the act. Act Two sees the two of them some time later, with Dufresne threatening to go away for a long time, after he leaves Cascart appears and warns her that he has seen Dufresne in Paris with another women. Zaza resolves to track him down. Act Three is at Dufresne's house, he is off to a meeting and Zaza gets in by pretending to be someone else. Her desire for revenge is defused when she meets Dufresne's charming daughter (who plays her a piece in the piano). We have already heard in Act One how Zaza's mother brought her up alone (in the only moment in Act One when Zaza gets anything like an aria). This vein of sentimentality continues into the last act when Zaza is determined to give up Milio for the sake of his family. But Leoncavallo takes Milio entirely at his own estimation; Milio calls Zaza a slut and hymns his own wife in an aria where Leoncavallo pulls all the stops out. Zaza is left heartbroken vowing nevermore, though the music is more positive.

The role of Zaza is huge, she is on-stage for virtually the whole of the opera.. Ermonela Jaho gave an outstanding performance, making it far more than a concert performance and seemed to remain in character for the whole time. Yes, she sang from music, but it was Zaza that we saw not Jaho. She had the right combination of vocal heft and delicacy to make the music count and she never tried to make the little melodic flowering moments more than they were. Instead she allowed the role to build, so that we came to care for Zaza and her closing moments were truly shattering.

She was finely partnered by the men in Zaza's life. Riccardo Massi brought a finely even voice and a nice sense of wit to the role of Milio. It is not a deep role, he is definitely Tim Nice-but Dim and is clearly surprised when he finds out that Zaza knows he has a woman in Paris. And Massi brought a lovely even technique to the moments, notably in Act Four, when he gets something like an aria. And the duet with which he and Ermonela Jaho closed Act One was suitably ravishing. The actor Cascart is a former lover and you suspect is still in love with her. He is a constant presence, looking out for Zaza throughout the plot. Baritone Stephen Gaertner played the role with a fine sense of personal commitment and a lovely freedom to the voice. His high lying passages were a joy to listen to and his account of his aria in Act Four rightly brought the house down.

The rest of the cast were all smaller roles, but each had a moment or two to make a mark. Rebecca Lodge gave no hint that she had learned the role of Anaide in 24 hours following Patricia Bardon's illness, and Lodge delivered some lovely strongly characterful moments. Kathryn Rudge felt underused as the maid, but she made her small moments tell. Fflur Wyn was brilliant as the singer Floriana, and we even got to hear one of her numbers at the cafe concert, the other performers were less favoured and Eleanor Minney and Margaret Cameron only had small comments in ensembles.
 David Stout, Simon Thorpe, Robert Anthony Gardiner and Nicky Spence all brought a great sense of individual personality and character to their various roles in Act One and Nicky Spence's Courtois was one of the few minor characters to return in Act Four. Christopher Turner as the waiter Augusto impressed in the way he took the small role and made it memorable without pulling focus from the principals. Helen Neeves had the small role of Dufresne's wife whilst Julia Ferri was in the speaking role of Toto the Dufresne's daughter, with Edward Goater as their put upon butler.

The BBC Singers popped up in a variety of roles through the evening, as well as providing some of the soloists (Rebecca Lodge, Helen Neeves, Edward Goater, Eleanor Minney and Margaret Cameron).

Maurizio Benini conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with sympathy and intelligence. There were one or two moments of balance problems, almost inevitably with such a large orchestral ensemble on stage, but there was no major problem. And Benini kept the music moving, whilst allowing the small moments of melody to flower without disturbing the flow too much.

Leoncavallo's Zaza is never going to become a regular repertory piece but listening to this supremely enjoyable evening, you did wonder why it has dropped out of the repertory completely. Granted it does require a diva in the title role, able to take complete control of the character and project it in just the right way. The performance from Ermonela Jaho was outstanding, and she rightly got a standing ovation at the end. She completely incarnated Zaza and captured her dramatically even though only a concert performance. It helped that Jaho was surrounded by such a strong cast, and the whole had a strong ensemble feel.

The BBC have recorded the opera for later transmission and of course there is an Opera Rara recording in the pipeline. The most recent Opera Rara recording to be released is Gounod's La Colombe (see my review). In the pipeline is Donizetti's Duc d'Albe, Bellini's Adelson e Salvini and a recording of Rossini's complete Semiramide on period instruments.

Update: Profuse apologies for the embarassing gremlin which managed to make Patricia Bardon's illness far more serious than it really was.

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