Discovering Zaza

28 Nov

Normally, I don’t have a problem with going to the opera on my own – quite a good thing you may say.  I don’t see it particularly as a social occasion, but one where I’m quite happy just to appreciate by myself.  However, Opera Rara’s performance of Leoncavallo’s Zaza on 27th November was one of those where I wanted to have someone with me to share the experience, not because I think that Zaza is an undiscovered masterpiece, but because this performance made a very strong case for it and featured a fabulous achievement by Ermonela Jaho in the title role.

It was first performed in 1900 and achieved quite a decent success.  Leoncavallo revised it in 1919 (the performance Opera Rara did was that version).  Geraldine Farrar had a huge success with it at the Met in the 1920s and Loewenberg notes that it was still being performed in Italy in the early 1940s.  It’s now got rather lost with those other operas composed under the shadow of Puccini.

At this performance it came across as rather an appealing piece, albeit with a couple of potential problems. Zaza is a minor cabaret singer who infatuates the wealthy businessman Milio. They are blissfully happy until Zaza discovers that there appears to be another mistress. She goes to Paris to discover not a mistress, but a wife and child. She gives Milio up after a suitable scenery-chewing scene – her last words are “e tutto finito”.
It struck me as quite a technically well-constructed piece. The first act, which reminded me a bit of the opening of Adriana Lecouvreur, is in the cabaret – lots of bustle, you hear the different acts from backstage and has an appealing duet for Zaza and Milio. The second act has less bustle and is the most concise – a nice scene for Zaza and Milio before Cascart, her old flame, reveals the existence of the “mistress”.

The third act is potentially the trickiest. There’s a good aria for Milio after which he leaves. Zaza then arrives and meets his daughter, Toto (“my real name’s Antoinette but everyone calls me Toto”). There is a real danger that this could be so saccharine (“I will play an Ave Maria because it’s my mother’s favourite”) as to induce serial vomiting in an audience or gales of laughter. You need a very strong Zaza to be able to carry it off. The last act has a very good aria for Cascart as he comforts Zaza and that final confrontation.  Leoncavallo’s orchestration is beguiling, detailed and he builds up the drama really well.

Aside from the little child Toto, the problems could be the fact that it’s really quite hard to like Milio who evidently is quite happy to leave his family for six months to live with Zaza without mentioning his wife, and the fact that the music isn’t as instantly memorable as Puccini. Lots of the same techniques are used – conversation, bustling orchestration – but it feels less certain, the music more incidental to a sung play rather than an integral part. You get glimpses of strong ideas that somehow fade away – at least in the first couple of acts. What actually is happening, is that Leoncavallo is building up to a strong finale, leaving me, much to my surprise, involved and rather moved.  This is an opera which could be revived in mainstream houses successfully.

That success will depend on the performance of the leading role. You need a good old fashioned singing actress capable of holding the performance together – you can understand why Geraldine Farrar made it such a success. I imagine that Netrebko, Gheorghiu, Freni when she was singing her heavier roles, would be or have been smashing in it. However, I don’t think their services will be required after the performance that Ermonela Jaho gave here. She took the role completely seriously, developing from the flippant prima donna of the first act, to the smitten lover of the second, through the tortured anguish of Act III to the anger, bitterness and despair of the last act. She has a way of conveying emotions and a fundamental honesty and decency so that they are utterly believable.  This wasn’t a showy, self-conscious performance but one where you she created someone entirely believable.  She held the hall mesmerised by the sheer passion, anger and sadness that she got into that final scene. She sang it superbly – it’s a gorgeous voice and she seizes the words and makes them mean something. I do hope the Royal Opera House have some plans for her to return for things other than Angelica. She’s a very special soprano indeed.

The rest were pretty good too. Riccardo Massi sang strongly as Milio, conveying the charm and fecklessness of the character and gave lots of pleasure with singing that struck me as perfectly in style.  He has a very attractive spinto tenor that has some heft behind it.  He’s doing Cavaradossi at the ROH later in the season and could be worth catching. Stephen Gaertner was a late-ish replacement as Cascart, Zaza’s ex and confidante, but he’d sung it before and I really enjoyed his concerned, stylish and intelligent singing. He did his Act IV aria really well. There may be some starrier names out there who could do the roles, but I’m not sure that I’d swap either of them.

There are quite a lot of small roles which were pretty strongly cast here even if not always easy to distinguish. I’d single out Nicky Spence for his outstandingly stylish and committed Courtois (Zaza’s boss) and Kathryn Rudge as Natalia the maid. Patricia Bardon was ill and Rebecca Lodge learned the role of Anaide (Zaza’s drunken mother) in 24 hours and put in a performance that did the job admirably.  Julia Ferri played Toto and managed to avoid making you want to strangle her or to rush for the sick bucket.

Some of that must be due to Susannah Waters’s direction.  She managed the comings and goings pretty well in front of the orchestra.  I’m not sure how far she can credited with helping Ms Jaho, but she obviously did nothing to hinder her and, as I’ve suggested, managed the third act really well.

Maurizio Benini conducted strongly. He took the piece absolutely seriously, played it for what it was worth and more and was well supported by the BBCSO and by the BBC Singers. This performance took place after the cast had recorded the opera and, as a result, they were all well into their roles – most used the scores as a fall-back and looked at each other and reacted.

This then struck me as demonstrating that Zaza is a viable opera – certainly no less so than, say, Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if this were even approaching the bottom of Mr Holten’s list of operas to perform at the ROH.  I’d say it would be worth it if only for Ms Jaho.   I’d certainly like to see a staging and will definitely be buying the CD when it comes out.



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