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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Zazą, opera in four acts (1900, rev. 1919) [136.01]
Ermonela Jaho (Zazą)
Riccardo Massi (Milio Dufresne)
Stephen Gaertner (Cascart)
Patricia Bardon (Anaide)
David Stout (Bussy)
Nicky Spence (Courtois)
Kathryn Rudge (Natalia)
Simon Thorpe (Duclou)
Fflur Wyn (Floriana)
Julia Ferri (Totņ Dufresne)
BBC Singers, Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Director)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Maurizio Benini
rec. November 2015, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
OPERA RARA ORC55 [72:02 + 63:59]

After winning the 2016 International Opera Award with Donizetti’s Les Martyrs followed by releases of Gounod’s La Colombe and Donizetti’s Le Duc d'Albe Opera Rara has moved away from its specialisation but clearly not from its comfort zone with this marvellous recording of Zazą. With over 40 years of experience in restoring forgotten operatic repertoire of the 19th-century the label has turned to Naples born Ruggero Leoncavallo’s four act opera Zazą as its first venture into the verismo tradition.

Leoncavallo could never repeat the lasting success of his first opera Pagliacci, a work which enjoys an enduring popularity on record and in the opera house and is almost invariably programmed as a double bill with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Following on from Pagliacci, I Medici, Chatterton and La bohčme, Zazą was the composer’s fourth opera. Written in 1900 to his own libretto, Zazą was premičred at the Teatro Lirico di Milano in the same year under Arturo Toscanini’s baton. A great success, Zazą was staged at opera houses around the world and evidently over the next 20 years there were over 50 new productions given. Unable to maintain its reputation in the repertory these days Zazą is known more by reputation than from actual performances. The opera was a platform for famous sopranos of the day such as Rosina Storchio (who premičred the title role) and Geraldine Farrar. According to American soprano Renée Fleming the prospect of staging Zazą is not helped by the difficulties “of finding a spinto soprano of sufficient vocal and physical charisma.”

The plot of the opera revolves around Zazą a French music-hall singer who has an affair with a prosperous Parisian, Milio Dufresne, who she breaks up with after encountering his child and learning he is married. Leoncavallo completed a second version of Zazą in 1919 known as the ultima versione which is the one given here by Maurizio Benini. There is a third 1947 version known as the nouva versione which was prepared by Renzo Bianchi.

A recent ‘Reader’s Award’ winner at the 2016 ‘International Opera Awards’ Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is a most satisfactory choice for the considerable title role for which there are few modern precedents. Zazą has several arias commencing with ‘Lo sai tu che vuol dire un uom che fugge’ from Act 1 where she is explaining her situation as a mother, of being abandoned and the difficulties of raising a child alone. Here there is an uncomfortable sense of enduring strain in Jaho’s voice, a feature that occurs nowhere else to the same level. Later in ‘No; sono un tesoro!’, also from Act 1, with Zazą’s romantic teasing of Milio the pair come close to each other and are about to kiss as the bell rings. In Act 3 Zazą explains about her childhood to the young Totņ ‘Mamma! io non l'ho avuto mai!’, how she was left alone all day as her mother had to work. Later, in Act 3 with ‘Ammogliato... e un angelo ha per figlia!’ Zazą is distressed after dicovering that Milio has a wife and child, and wondering what will become of her. Zazą contributes heavily to the affecting tension of the substantial sung dialogue in Act 4 without being given a specific stand-alone aria. Jaho’s wholeheartedly committed approach to the role is emphatic, proving able to provide a wide range of intense feeling and emotion from the initial joy and flirtation of Zazą meeting Milio to the heartbreaking sorrow and humiliation of being deceived. It’s a shame that Jaho’s voice is slightly set back in the recording balance which does rather result in reduced listener satisfaction.

Riccardo Massi excels as the wealthy love-rat Milio Dufresne. In ‘Č un riso Gentile’ in Act 1 Milio tells Zazą of his infatuation and in Act 2’s ‘Zazą, Zazą, non ti attristare’ he explains his sadness at parting from on having to travel to America for 3 months. Singing smoothly with warm expression, Massi is secure and focused in his mid-range and comfortable with his high notes. Throughout I can detect a slight swagger in Massi’s voice which feels eminently appropriate for the role.

The role of sage-like Cascart is blessed with a pair of impressive arias. In act 2 in ‘Buona Zazą del mio buon tempo’, as Zazą’s former lover he cautions her for betraying her art for a man. Sometimes encountered on collections and certainly the most distinguished is the Act 4 aria ‘Zazą, piccola zingara’ with Cascart singing of how Zazą hasn’t yet reached the end of her pain and if she doesn’t learn more tears will be shed. As Cascart, I came to admire the low baritone voice of Charles Long in the live 1985 radio broadcast of Zazą directed by James de Blasis with Anton Coppola conducting at the Cincinnati Opera. This was billed as the first major American revival in 60 years. Here baritone Stephen Gaertner doesn’t disappoint either, singing Cascart with a particularly strong sense of engagement. Gaertner’s attractive baritone sounds suitably mature and highly expressive with a performance full of sincerity.

Making the most of their supporting roles are Nicky Spence, strong and secure of voice as the impresario Courtois and Kathryn Rudge as Natalia, Zazą’s maid, displaying her dark attractive timbre, fluid and focused. Renato Balsadonna coaches the well-prepared BBC Singers and the results are creditable. Maurizio Benini conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, providing judicious tempi and the right level of drama without overpowering the singers.

Recorded in 2015 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London the sound quality is of a generally high standard except that Ermonela Jaho seems slightly recessed in the balance. I’m not sure what has happened to the lovely artwork that used to adorn Opera Rara covers. Since Offenbach’s Fantasio in 2014 the design covers have been uninspiring and rather bargain basement in look for a premium brand.

Opera Rara has made an inspired choice with Zazą which I hope will lead to a number of fully staged revivals.

Michael Cookson



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