Leoncavallo’s ‘Zazà’ Revealed As Tragic Gem In Recording

Soprano Ermonela Jaho and tenor Riccardo Massi share a light moment during a break from recording 'Zazà.'
Soprano Ermonela Jaho and tenor Riccardo Massi share a light moment during a break from recording ‘Zazà.’

Leoncavallo: Zazà. Ermonela Jaho, Riccardo Massi, Stephen Gaertner, Patricia Bardon, David Stout, Nicky Spence. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Maurizio Benini, conductor. Opera Rara ORC55. Total Time: 118:14.

By Rebecca Schmid

DIGITAL REVIEW — With Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Opera Rara makes an admirable addition to its catalog of Romantic stage works that have fallen into obscurity. The composer’s most popular opera after Pagliacci, it received more than 50 performances in the two decades after its 1900 premiere, becoming an important vehicle for the soprano Geraldine Farrar at the Metropolitan Opera.

ZazaCover 350There are melodies worthy of Puccini and heaving harmonies that reveal the influence of Wagner — not to mention the inescapable precedent of Verdi — but the score also turns on a dime to integrate frothy, French dance rhythms and heavy, declamatory outbursts. The shortage of closed arias is one reason for the opera’s limited commercial success.

Zazà, which Leoncavallo based on the eponymous play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, tells of a music club singer in southwestern France who falls in love with the Parisian businessman Milio Dufresne. The love affair ends in ruin for Zazà when she finds out that he is not just married, but also has a daughter.

As is typical for the verismo movement, Leoncavallo empathizes with the struggle of the title character, born to a single, alcoholic mother. But the score’s tender moments also reveal that Milio’s love for her is genuine. Only when he finds out that she tracked down his wife and daughter in person does he show his bourgeois colors, striking her before she reveals that she did nothing to threaten his domestic life.

Thanks to the consummate artistry of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Zazà and the authentic performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Maurizio Benini, the album (available June 10 on the Opera Rara label) does not drag for a moment. Jaho can be everything from a girlish seductress, to a fierce show-woman, to a fragile, naïve victim of an unjust society.

Her passion after Milio kisses her for the first time (“Ah! perché, cattivo,” using a motive first heard in the overture) is consuming, her desperation heartbreaking when she leaves for Paris in the second act. The Milio of Italian tenor Riccardo Massi is at once alluring and pathetic, capturing the character’s remorse when he realizes he must separate from Zazà (“O mio piccolo tavolo ingombrato”), but also his moral weakness in the final scene.

Conductor Maurizio Benini during the recording session.
Conductor Maurizio Benini during the recording session.

Strong performances come from American baritone Stephen Gaertner as Cascart — the former lover and colleague of Zazà who tries to convince her to forget Milio — and Irish mezzosoprano Patricia Bardon as Zazà’s mother, Anaide, who also senses that the affair will end badly. Comprimario roles such as the journalist Bussy (David Stout) and the impresario Courtois (Nicky Spence) by contrast suffer from an excessive dose of anglophone pronunciation.

The orchestra accompanies the singers with sensitive inflections and attention to balance (producer: Michael Haas) while projecting the score’s range of colors, from the flute and harp vignette that ushers in the appearance of Milio’s daughter, Totó (Julia Ferri), to the soaring lines of the overture, which portend a mix of blissful passion and inescapable tragedy.

Only Leoncavallo’s decision to assign a purely spoken role to Totó breaks with Zazà’s dramatic unity, particularly given the emotional drive of his vocal lines. But it is also a fascinating moment when the child sits down to play piano in counterpoint with Zazà sobbing as she realizes her circumstances, a testament to the verismo style’s non-linear evolution.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.