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DVD: Crotchet

Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Zanetto – Opera in one act (1896)
Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni (soprano) – Silvia; Romina Basso (mezzo) – Zanetto; Orchestra Sinfonica di Savona/Bruno Aprea
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, Spanish.
KICCO CLASSIC KCOU9005 [c.91:00]
Experience Classicsonline

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 Mascagni stopgap.
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 pockets.
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.
Christopher Howell


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