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Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Zazà (1900)
Clara Petrella (Zazà), Elinor Parker (Anaide), Tito Nava (Courtois), Adriana Buda (Floriana), Tito Turtura (Cascart), Giuseppe Campora (Milio Dufresne), Duilio Contoli (Bussy), Ernesto Sormani (Augusto, Marco), Elena Barcis (Natalia), Zoe Papadaki (Madame Dufresne), Daniela Campora (Totò)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Alfredo Silipigni
Recorded 3rd-6th September 1969 in the Auditorium del Conservatorio, Turin
WARNER FONIT CETRA OPERA COLLECTION 5050467-7799-2-1 [38:61 + 41:48]


In my review of Warner-Fonit Cetra’s single-disc "La Cenerentola" I protested that a performance so drastically cut should be announced on the cover as "abridged", "highlights" or something of the kind. Of course, we all know that operas are usually given in the theatre with the odd cut here and there and it would be rampant purism to suggest that a recording of "La Traviata" should have "abridged" written all over it just because Alfredo’s cabaletta is missing, but what are we to think of this?

 Act I
Act II 
Act III 
Act IV
 Gavazzeni (1995)




Since Gavazzeni’s tempi are almost always more urgent than Silipigni’s, the amount of music cut is actually greater still than the 42-minute difference which shows above. Unfortunately, the Gavazzeni is not available on CD. It was broadcast live from a performance in Palermo and I have been able to hear an off-the-air tape. Well, actually an organization called House of Opera is offering both this and a 2000 Nice performance if you want to track it down via the Internet, but I have no idea of the quality, let alone the legality since even Italy’s relatively easy-going legislation requires twenty years to pass before such a tape can be issued.

Playing the two section by section is a revelatory experience. Not only have entire arias been jettisoned (some very attractive ones, too), but the much of the through-composed narrative writing has been lopped and pruned, sometimes by just a few lines here and there, sometimes savagely. But it is at this point that I begin to wonder if something more than cutting is afoot, since, in order to make the bits that are left hook up smoothly, some ingenious re-writing (of both the music and the words) has been undertaken. Moreover, some of the music is completely different; Act IV begins with a different prelude and the concluding bars are different. The off-stage chorus has been eliminated from Act III, but the first of its appearances has been replaced with a completely new passage for orchestra alone. It seems to me strange that such wholesale re-composition should have been made for a recording and I wonder if "Zazà" actually exists in two versions, the composer having been induced to tighten it up drastically. Support for this seems to come from the description of the Bongiovanni version under Silvano Frontalini (GB 2289/90-2), which I haven’t had the opportunity to hear and which lasts 148 minutes, as the "original and unedited" version. So, by implication, a "non-original and edited (by who?)" version exists. I presume that Gavazzeni plays the "original and unedited" version with a few minor cuts.

Does it matter? Well, the score we hear under Gavazzeni seems so much richer and so much fuller of life. It is true that the edited version gives greater linearity to an opera which was criticised on its first appearance for an excess of characters and minor episodes. But it seems to me that the poignancy of the third and fourth acts, where Zazà’s own drama gradually emerges from the sleazy life of the music hall to which she is condemned to return at the end, is all the greater for the more detailed picture we have of the world in which she moves. Part of this may also be due to the fact that Gavazzeni, then 86, finds so much more vitality and theatrical narration in it all than does Alfredo Silipigni’s competent but somewhat sluggish baton.

Sometimes these old Cetra recordings claim our attention by reminding us of singers who were widely admired in their day, and the booklet turns the set into a special memorial for the tenor Giuseppe Campora, who died on 4th December 2004 while the reissue was being planned. The name of Clara Petrella will also attract the attention of opera enthusiasts. Alas for the golden-agers, on this occasion they are comfortably surpassed in the 1995 performance. Petrella sings very solidly, to be sure, while Denia Gavazzeni Mazzola is a more reckless artist; but Petrella seems to be singing on a syllable-by-syllable basis while Mazzola lives the part and phrases the music. It all has so much more meaning. It is fashionable to seize on a second-string tenor of the past and say "if only today’s tenors were even as good as this", but Gavazzeni’s Luca Canonici has a generally easier emission than Campora and again, whether inspired by Gavazzeni or simply by the experience of performing the role in the theatre, he gives more meaning to the music. I could find Tito Turtura’s Cascart fractionally superior in vocal quality to Gavazzeni’s Stefano Antonucci. The other roles are decently done in either performance.

I have dwelt at length on a comparison you won’t be able to hear because I feel that in the last resort the version under review just doesn’t give a complete enough idea of the opera to be worth buying. I am sorry not to be able to give any advice over the Bongiovanni recording, but I feel that the Gavazzeni is a historical document, lead by a conductor who was a doughty champion of Italian verismo over half a century or more, and since the RAI presumably holds excellent master tapes of it, ways should be found of issuing it officially. The Cetra recording, by the way, is pretty lack-lustre for its date though the voices are well enough caught. Last but not least, the set offers pretty meagre timings and the previous CD issue of this recording, on Nuova Era, coupled it with Mascagni’s one-act opera "Zanetto", the 40-odd minutes of which will presumably be issued in due course by Warner Fonit as a third meanly-filled CD.

As for the opera, the story by Berton and Simon on which it is based was found interesting enough to have inspired a film version by George Cukor (1939, with Claudette Colbert) as well as a more recent Italian remake with music by Nino Rota. Leoncavallo’s music goes to reinforce my conviction, based on several recent Mascagni reissues, that the dominance of the Italian opera scene by Puccini was less than fair. The scene where Zazà meets her lover’s daughter is both curious, since the child has a speaking part in stark contrast to the soprano’s passionately operatic outpourings, and genuinely powerful. Perhaps it was above all for this that Geraldine Farrar chose "Zazà" for her farewell appearance in 1922.

Christopher Howell


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