Saturday 4 December 2021

Written for London and his second most performed work, Leoncavallo's Zingari has fallen out of the repertoire but Opera Rara aims to change all that

Leoncavallo: Zingari - Łukasz Goliński, Krassimira Stoyanova, Arsen Soghomonyan, Stephen Gaertner - Opera Rara (Photo Simon Weir)
Leoncavallo: Zingari - Łukasz Goliński, Krassimira Stoyanova, Arsen Soghomonyan, Stephen Gaertner - Opera Rara (Photo Simon Weir)

Leoncavallo Zingari, Puccini/Rizzi Tosca Symphonic Suite; Krassimira Stoyanova, Arsen Soghomonyan, Stephen Gaertner, Lukasz Golinski, Opera Rara Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi; Opera Rara at Cadogan Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Opera Rara revives Leoncavallo's opera, written for London, where the composer seems to revisit the musical world of his major hit, Pagliacci

Leoncavallo's Zingari was written for London in 1912 and it went on to have an incredibly long run both in London and in the United States, making it Leoncavallo's most performed opera after Pagliacci, yet somehow the opera has fallen out of the canon. Opera Rara wants to change all that and has been recording it. As the culmination of the recording sessions, Opera Rara presented conductor Carlo Rizzi, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, tenor Arsen Soghomonyan, baritone Stephen Gaertner (standing in at short notice for Carlos Alvarez), bass Lukasz Golinski, Opera Rara Chorus, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Leoncavallo's Zingari and Carlo Rizzi's Puccini arrangement, Tosca Symphonic Suite at Cadogan Hall on Friday 3 December 2021.

We began with Carlo Rizzi conducting the premiere of his Tosca Symphonic Suite, a 25 minute orchestral work based on the music from Puccini's Tosca. Rizzi has long thought that Puccini's orchestral writing in his operas would lend itself to the creation of symphonic suites in the manner of those created by Richard Strauss for Der Rosenkavalier, but it needed last year's lockdown for him to have the time to do it. The music only uses Puccini's orchestrations, though Rizzi has moved things around considerably, fragments from one area of the opera flow into fragments from another, to create a satisfying musical form rather than a dramatic orchestral narrative. The voices are absent, Rizzi has not replaced the vocal lines with instruments and instead we have the complex orchestral auras from around the voices. The result was, to some extent, disturbing with moments from the drama in a different order, yet also rather satisfying.

After the interval we heard Leoncavallo's Zingari. This was written for London's Hippodrome Theatre, a music hall that aimed to present a wide range of entertainments but including more elite genres so that in 1909 it was the venue for Ballets Russes, and in 1911 Leoncavallo conducted a cut version of Pagliacci. Leoncavallo agreed to return 1912 with a new opera. The source for the new opera was Pushkin's poem, The Gypsies (from 1824), that had already been the source for Rachmaninov's Aleko (from 1892) as well as being highly influential on Bizet's Carmen

Leoncavallo's opera is highly concentrated, just two episodes separated by an orchestral intermezzo. In the first episode, we meet the gypsies Fleanna (Krassimira Stoyanova) and Tamar (Stephen Gaertner), he loves her but she has been meeting Radu (Arsen Soghomonyan) secretly. Radu is an outsider, a prince, but one who wants to join the gypsy life. He is welcomed by Il Vecchio (Lukasz Golinski) and all ends happily, though there are elements of jealousy from Radu. By the second episode, things have fallen apart, Fleanna is seeing Tamar and they declare their love, whilst Radu is jealous and suspicious. The opera ends with Radu setting fire to the hut in which Fleanna and Tamar have retreated.

Musically, Leoncavallo mines the classic 19th century tropes of gypsy music, but mixed in with his own style. You would never mistake this for anything but Leoncavallo and often the musical writing evokes his earlier success, Pagliacci. Musically, it feels an opera out of time, there is no sense that Strauss' Elektra and Salome have happened, never mind that Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire would premiere the same year whilst Ballets Russes would perform Debussy's L'apres midi d'une faun and Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe. But with hindsight, we can enjoy Leoncavallo's music for what it is without worrying too much about the other influences.

What is a weakness in the work is the huge gap between the two episodes, we rather miss the development which has led to the situation in the second episode. It is a shame that Leoncavallo never made a revised, longer version. There is, however, much to enjoy.

Krassimira Stoyanova made a strong heroine, certainly no pushover, and she sang with a superb strong line. Both her duets, with Arsen Soghomonyan in episode one and Stephen Gaertner in episode two, were highlights of the piece, whilst her solo in episode one brought a strong element of character to the role. Radu is first introduced to us via a solo which was classic Leoncavallo, with Arsen Soghomonyan singing with a passionate sense of line. Throughout he imbued the role with that passion and open-throated tone, leading to his impassioned moments in episode two. Stephen Gaertner had the opportunity to move from jealous baddy to love interest, a rather intriguing journey and he sang his major aria with a lovely sense of style as well as joining with Stoyanova in their terrific final duet. Lukasz Golinski contributed fine mellifluous tone for the smaller role of il Vecchio.

Carlo Rizzi, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Opera Rara (Photo Simon Weir)
Carlo Rizzi, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Opera Rara (Photo Simon Weir)

Carlo Rizzi and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave us a richly textured orchestral contribution, bringing out the strong sonorities and emotions in the music. The intermezzo moved from an evocation of gypsy music to a sense of Leoncavallo's own personal style.

Leoncavallo's Zingari is never going to become a wide repertory piece, but there was an engaging emotional feel to the opera and its concision makes it in many ways rather admirable, despite the sense of a lacuna in the middle of the plot. The performance gave the work a terrific send off, and I look forward to hearing the disc.

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