Thursday 9 June 2016

Capturing hearts again - Leoncavallo's Zaza on disc

Leoncavallo - Zaza - Opera Rara
Leoncavallo Zaza; Ermonela Jaho, 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, Rebecca Lodge, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Maurizo Benini; Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Ermonela Jaho captures hearts again in this recording of Leoncavallo's romantic opera set in a cafe-concert

Ruggiero Leoncavallo's opera Zaza is another one of Opera Rara's valuable rediscoveries. We were given a taste of the opera at the concert performance at the Barbican in November last year (see my review), but this new disc is a studio recording made using the same cast including including Ermonela Jaho in the title role, 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 Rebecca Lodge. Maurizio Benini conducts the Opera Rara Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) Russell Duncan
Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra
(c) Russell Duncan
Leoncavallo's Zaza was premiered in 1900, when Arturo Toscanini conducted it at Milan's Teatro Lirico. Leoncavallo had already composed Pagliacci (premiered 1892) as well as La Boheme (premiered 1897). The excellent CD booklet article makes it clear that during his lifetime Leoncavallo was by no means a one-opera composer and that in terms of audience reaction and performances, Zaza was as popular as Pagliacci. Though the problem seems to have been, and to some extent remains, the critical reaction where the works of the giovane scuola have never been quite taken on their own terms.

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. In many ways it resembles Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur (which premiered two years after Zaza), in that the vividly depicted theatrical milieu is used as a backdrop for an unsuccessful love-affair between an actress and someone upper class.

The problem with Zaza, if problem it be, is that Leoncavallo provides us with few hummable tunes. After the concert performance, despite Ermonela Jaho's corruscating performance, I could hardly hum any of Zaza's melodies. The article in the CD booklet argues that this is because of Leoncavallo's interest in naturalism, and his great use of declamation (inspired by Wagner, but in a very different setting), or perhaps he just found writing tunes difficult? In fact there are tunes, Zaza and Milio's final scene is full of them, but Leoncavallo just doesn't over work them, they simply come and go.

The plot is wafer thin.
At a cafe concert in Saint-Etienne, Zaza (Ermonella Jaho) is prepares to go on stage with her performing partner (and former lover) Cascart (Stephen Gaertner). Amongst the motley crew backstage are her mother Anaide (Patricia Bardon), 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) from Paris. 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 performance is stupendous, and I could not wish for anything more. The sheer profusion of characters, stage-business and back-stage coming and going in Act One (and to a certain extent Act Three) make it a tricky opera to follow on disc. You really do have to follow with libretto in hand, it doesn't help that the track listing gives the titles but not who is singing. At a staging it is clear what is going on because the stage acts are seen through a door onto the cafe-concert stage and are accompanied by the off-stage banda. Here I think it would have been helpful if the recording had made a more audible difference between on and off stage.

Ermonela Jaho really brings Zaza to life, this is role which requires that difficult combination of strong technique and personal fragility but, as she showed with Suor Angelica at Covent Garden, this is something at which she excels. And it is a role which needs a diva with personality, something Jaho does well too, singing with great personal charm. Here she is well partnered by tenor Riccardo Massi as her lover Milio Dufresne. The two are ravishing in their duet at the end of Act One and Massi plays the outraged lover brilliantly at the end when he realises that his two lives have collided and Zaza has met his wife. And Jaho plays the highly emotional concluding scene of the opera to perfection.

The other roles are smaller, but Leoncavallo provides some nicely meaty cameos. Perhaps the most touching is Stephen Gaertner as Cascart, Zaza's stage partner who seems still loves her. Gaertner's Act Four aria brought the house down at the Barbican and it comes over superbly on disc too, sung with a superb sense of well supported line. Fflur Wyn's Floriana is a relatively minor character, but we do get to hear her singing 'on stage' in a delightful number. All the rest of cast give strongly characterised performances, making the dialogue highly coloured.

But they are essentially the backdrop, but the foreground is the essentially sentimental story. And here Ermonela Jaho and Riccardo Massi are finely supported by Maurizio Bernini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra who play the piece with great love, without ever smothering it. There is a lovely swoop and sheen to the orchestra's phrasing with makes the orchestra moments a complete delight.

We can also appreciate Leoncavallo's ear for interesting timbres, the way the stage music and the banda in Act One weave in and out of the 'real' action, the use of a spoken role in melodrama for Milio's daughter, Toto, (the excellent Julia Ferri), and the introduction of the piano into the texture in Act Three as Toto plays the piano.

But this is Ermonela Jaho's show, with all the other supporting players allowing her to shine and capture hearts. This is exactly as it should be, and Opera Rara are to be congratulated on finding someone just right for this central role. Leoncavallo's Zaza isn't quite a masterpiece, but it deserves a place in the repertoire just as much as Cilea's Adriana Lecourvreur. On this disc Opera Rara are to be commended for giving the work every chance, and producing a set with a great deal of style. I do hope that it persuades someone to stage the work in the UK; in fact, since writing this review it has been announced that Opera Holland Park will be staging the opera as part of their 2017 season

Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) - Zaza
Zaza - Ermonela Jaho
Anaide - Patricia Bardon
Floriana - Fflur Wyn
Natalia - Kathryn Rudge
Milio - Riccardo Massi
Cascart - Stephen Gaertner
Bussy - David Stout
Duclou - Simon Thorpe
Marco - Edward Goater
Augusto - Christopher Turner
Un signore - Robert Anthony Gardiner
Courtois - Nicky Spence
Signora Dufresne - Helen Neeves
Toto Dufresne - Julia Ferri
Claretta - Eleanor Minney
Simona - Rebecca Lodge
Opera Rara Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Maurizio Bernini
Recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, November 2015
Opera Rara ORC55 2CDs.
Released on 10 June 2016; Available from

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