Leoncavallo’s ‘Zazà’

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Ruggiero Leoncavallo
LABELS: Opera Rara
ALBUM TITLE: Leoncavallo
WORKS: Zazà
PERFORMER: David Stout, Nicky Spence, Kathryn Rudge, Simon Thorpe, Fflur Wyn, Julia Ferri; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Maurizio Benini
CATALOGUE NO: Opera Rara ORC 55

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Ruggero Leoncavallo is remembered for just one opera – Pagliacci, an essential part of the standard rep ever since its 1892 premiere; but other works were successful in his lifetime, especially Zazà (1900), which describes the affair between a French music-hall artist and the businessman lover she belatedly discovers is married.

It’s a classic narrative about the plight of the ‘other woman’, whose turning-point comes when Zazà, incognita, visits her lover Milio’s home and there encounters his small daughter – an event that causes her to remember her own single-parent childhood and the alcoholism her slighted social position visited upon her mother, Anaide.

The scene with Milio’s child Totò (a spoken part), though, veers towards mawkishness, however skilfully it may be performed here, and the opera’s consequent trajectory is too resolutely downbeat.

But overall it’s an appreciable achievement, with the opening scene at the music-hall in St Etienne particularly successful: Leoncavallo knew this environment intimately from his own Parisian period, and the vivacity and colour with which he captures it possess genuine charm and ingenuity, as well as a distinctively French musical accent.

In this recording of the composer’s revised 1919 version of the accomplished score, conductor Maurizio Benini brings a light touch to his micro-management of BBC forces. Ermonela Jaho offers full emotional commitment, seizing the title role’s considerable opportunities. She’s finely partnered by Riccardo Massi as the duplicitous Milio, with Stephen Gaertner focused as her worldly-wise stage-partner Cascart – who gets two of the opera’s best arias – and Patricia Bardon as the comic-pathetic Anaide.

George Hall

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