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Zanetto – Opera in one act (1896)
Mazzola Gavazzeni (soprano) – Silvia; Romina Basso
(mezzo) – Zanetto; Orchestra Sinfonica di Savona/Bruno
Concerto di Canto
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora: Rigida è assai la sera
I Rantzau: Fa che i pensieri non tornino
Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)
Dejanice: Scena e canzone egizia
Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Risurrezione: Dio pietoso
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Zazà: Mamma io non l’ho avuto mai!
Riccardo ZANDONAI (1883-1944)
Francesca da Rimini: Paolo, datemi pace
La Wally: Ebben ne andrò lontana
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur: Io son l’umile ancella
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca: Vissi d’arte
Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni (soprano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Savona/Giovanni Di Stefano
rec. Live, November 2003, Teatro Astor, Savona, Italy.
Includes interviews. Subtitles in Italian, English, French,
CLASSIC KCOU9005 [c.91:00]
Zanetto is a strange opera.
But then, practically all Mascagni’s
operas challenge our expectations of opera. And especially,
of an opera written by the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana.
Written five years later than “Cav”, it is a brief one-act piece with
only two characters, a soprano, Silvia, and a mezzo, Zanetto,
in a breeches role. Set in the renaissance – but here updated – Silvia
is a courtesan disillusioned with men and love generally.
The youthful enthusiasm of Zanetto awakens the lost emotions
within her, yet she realizes she could only harm Zanetto
by giving way to her feelings. In a dramatic act of renunciation,
she sends Zanetto away and remains alone with her sorrow.
A sort of Violetta Valéry who perceives the straight and
narrow without blundering old Germont père having
to persuade her of it. Though such renunciation is not
popular today and probably never was, a sincere performance
could yet move us. For better or for worse the producer,
Beppe De Tomasi, has other ideas. Even as we are reaching
for our hankies, Silvia pulls out a tiny pistol and silently
shoots herself. As she falls to the ground the image of
Zanetto is projected against the backdrop. In the brief
interview at the end, De Tomasi explains that the spirit
of Silvia now lives on in Zanetto. What I find rather reprehensible
is that he explains it, not as an idea of his own, but
as though the opera was really written with that ending.
Not many purchasers of this DVD will have a vocal score
handy to check the facts. In order to fit in this last
bit of stage business a short section of the music has
to be played twice. And then, if Mascagni had envisaged
a “redemption through love and death” ending, he would
surely have made the orchestral conclusion either radiant
or triumphant. Instead, the final bars are sombre.
De Tomasi also remarks that in the end Zanetto remains a figure of
mystery. Is he a boy? Is she a girl? Certainly, the story-line
together with Mascagni’s decision to have a woman singing
a male role lends itself to interpretations that suggest
various layers of sexual ambiguity and repression. Whether
Mascagni would have agreed with any of them is debatable.
I suspect that for him it was a tale of “pure” love redeeming
a “bad” character.
Less controversial may be De Tomasi’s decision to update the costumes.
Except that I don’t quite see why Silvia wears a classic
evening dress that might have been used any time in the
last hundred years or so, while Zanetto has riding-boots,
slacks and a leather jacket seemingly bought in a cheap
department store. Or did he just tell the singers to dress
how they liked? At least Zanetto has the advantage that
she can go home afterwards without needing to change.
Still, the production, if not entirely convincing, is not wholly offensive.
So what of the singers? And indeed, the music?
The opera begins, theoretically, with an off-stage unaccompanied chorus.
Not here. The chorus has been arranged, quite tastefully,
for orchestra as a Prelude. I have to agree that it would
take quite a lot of work to get a good performance of the
chorus, probably disproportionate to the resources available
at Savona. For this, as for much else, we await a performance
by a major theatre.
After this charmingly atmospheric beginning, Mascagni unfolds the
tale as a conversation-piece. The two singers never actually
combine in a duet. Against a beautifully refined art
nouveau orchestral backdrop – a far cry from the blood
and thunder of “Cav” – the melodic recitatives sometimes
expand into scenas and semi-arias. The nearest to a closed-number
aria is Zanetto’s brief off-stage serenade, preluding his
arrival and repeated at the end. Like so many of the rarer
Mascagni operas that have come my way – most recently “Amica” – this
might yet prove a masterpiece under the right conditions.
The right conditions could even embrace the two singers
here, but nevertheless, what we actually get is yet another
As is fairly well known, Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni courted controversy
when, as a young and up-and-coming singer, she married
the aged maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Despite the cries
of opportunism, she predictably did her career no good.
Offsetting the few roles she undertook with her husband
on the podium – including a notable Zazà (Leoncavallo) – before
death took him from the scene, she had an uphill struggle
to convince other conductors or impresarios, then and since,
to take her seriously. Given that logical – and even opportunist – considerations
would have led any young singer to conclude that she had
everything to gain from being Gavazzeni’s protégée and
nothing from being his wife, the default assumption must
be that theirs was really a union of love.
Another problem for her career has been her specialization in an area – verismo – which,
with Gavazzeni no longer there to carry the torch for it,
has only isolated pockets of admirers. Mascagni has been
off-limits at La Scala pretty well since the war and things
don’t look like changing. One such isolated pocket evidently
exists at Savona. Mazzola Gavazzeni gives the role her
all. She is a genuine singing actress, with a voice that
is mostly firm and vibrant. It is true the vibrato spreads
a bit at the top, and that the lower chest notes are sometimes
overdone, but Mascagni’s tessitura is often cruel – just
listen to her opening phrase – and she copes valiantly.
She is, however, rhythmically rather free. Arguably, the
music needs this. Had Gavazzeni been there to conduct all
would have been well, no doubt. Bruno Aprea is neither
inexperienced nor unknown, at least in Italy, but the best
he can do is to keep his orchestra – a thinly stringed
and ragged band – within a beat or so of the singer.
Romina Basso has a well-produced, steady voice. She is more “correct”,
somewhat academic in her phrasing, which makes it easier
for the orchestra. Still, a good piece of singing. However,
she’s not a singing actress. Acting, for her, means rolling
her eyes around and inserting frequent pert tosses of the
head. Even as Cherubino this would have become tiresome
over a whole opera. Did no one explain to her that this
was a serious piece?
So there we are. Another stopgap just about good enough to hint that
there could be a really fine opera awaiting discovery.
The previous stopgap, if you can find it, was the old Cetra LP from
the 1950s. Available coupled with “Zazà” in the early days
of CD, the more recent spate of Cetra reissues from Warner
seems to have ignored it – “Zazà” came out on its own.
I don’t know it but its age would seem to tell against
it. Stopgap for stopgap, I daresay most people would rather
have a rare opera in a form they can see as well as hear.
They will also get a recital of mostly rare arias from Mazzola Gavazzeni
that is well worth having. It is slightly disconcerting
to find her, away from the grease-paint of the stage, cultivating
a slightly old and haggard image, with grey hair and a
band of pure white at the front. Most of her stage colleagues
make free with the hair-dye even before they really need
it. Perhaps we should learn to salute the honesty of one
who tells it like it is.
Her singing is, on the whole, more secure even than in “Zanetto”.
The orchestra is no less ragged but Giovanni Di Stefano
is clearly well versed in the sort of ebb and flow required
by the music and keeps the band in strict contact with
the singer. She also keeps the score open in front of her
for safety’s sake, though it does not appear to inhibit
her. Maybe it even gives her confidence, for this is heartfelt,
intensely communicative singing of music that needs precisely
that. Those wanting to hear some rarer pieces of verismo sung
by one of the few modern singers who have dedicated to
them the time and passion they deserve will be well rewarded.
What you won’t find in the rarer excerpts is set-piece
arias in the manner of the three popular items that round
off the recital. As with “Zanetto”, these operas are basically
written in a melodic arioso that sometimes blossoms into
something more “excerptable”, but which does not aim to
be the sort of set piece with which the more commercially
minded Puccini deliberately stopped his shows. So you will
get a “hummable tune” only in the Catalani pieces, which
represent an older sort of opera, the well-known Cilea
and of course the Puccini. The last three pieces obviously
evoke famous comparisons. She comes out of them reasonably
well, especially in Cilea.
It would seem a pity that Mazzola Gavazzeni, like Kaibavanska of the
previous generation, was not asked to explore more systematically
the rarer corners of the early 20th century
Italian repertoire. Unfortunately, no comparable tenor
was available for the job. And as I pointed out at the
beginning, interest among conductors – apart from Gavazzeni
himself – and impresarios was limited to isolated provincial
The DVD is concluded by some interviews – or “interwievs” as they
call them – that are too brief to yield much, apart from
De Tomasi’s “explanation” of his changed ending.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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