03 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — ZAZÀ (E. Jaho, R. Massi, S. Gaertner, P. Bardon, D. Stout, N. Spence, K. Rudge, S. Thorpe, F. Wyn, J. Ferri; Opera Rara ORC 55)

IN REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo - ZAZÀ (Opera Rara ORC 55)RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): ZazàErmonela Jaho (Zazà), 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 (Toto), Christopher Turner (Augusto), Helen Neeves (Signora Dufresne), Edward Goater (Marco), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Un signore), Eleanor Minney (Claretta), Rebecca Lodge (Simona); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Maurizio Benini, conductor [Recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, UK, in November 2015; Opera Rara ORC 55; 2 CDs, 136:01; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

So often are opera lovers cautioned that the plots of the works that they love must be taken with a grain of salt that the true aficionado’s diet must be dangerously suffused with sodium. Whether a score’s drama is one of Roman emperors, legendary warriors, or more ordinary personages, opera is the realm of idealism set to music. The denizens of operatic plots rarely behave as their counterparts off the stage might be expected to do: perhaps their actions are larger for having absorbed the vicarious ambitions of their portrayers and observers. For all of its verismo vestments, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s seldom-heard Zazà is clothed in unabashedly Romantic hues that would be embarrassingly garish if viewed outside of the opera house. The tale of a vaudeville chanteuse’s vain seduction and eventual selfless rejection of a married man melds the realms of the Moulin Rouge and the Palais Garnier, but the opera’s plot is marginally too starry-eyed to be swallowed without the seasoning of that proverbial dose of salt. The histrionic shortcomings of the heroine and her circle notwithstanding, Zazà has been done few favors by the handful of indifferently-produced recordings of the score despite admirable performances of the title rôle by Mafalda Favero, Clara Petrella, Lynne Strow-Piccolo, and Lisa Houben. What Zazà needs is star treatment, and that is what the opera receives in spades from Opera Rara in this expertly-prepared studio performance, recorded in advance of a critically-acclaimed concert outing at the Barbican. Here extending the focus of the label’s celebrated endeavors to the very end of the Nineteenth Century, Zazà having premièred at Milan’s Teatro Lirico on 10 November 1900, the principal question raised by this release is whether Opera Rara can deal as authoritatively with verismo as with bel canto. The answer, this recording proves, is a resounding Sì!

Guided by the propulsive, idiomatic conducting of Maurizio Benini, the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Leoncavallo’s episodic score with brio that qualifies them as honorary Italians regardless of the flags under which they were born. The opera’s orchestration is clever and colorful if never especially inventive, though the use of the offstage banda to create the contrasting back- and front-of-house perspectives of Zazà’s milieu is witty and managed by Benini with panache and by the banda personnel with raucous brilliance. Motivic writing is not as prominent in Zazà as in many post-Wagner works originating on any side of the Alps, but Benini’s attentiveness to the most minute details of thematic material ensures that subtleties of characterization can be enacted by the singers without exaggeration. The conductor looks to the score for guidance on setting tempi that serve both drama and cast, and his clear-sighted pacing of the performance minimizes the doldrums of Leoncavallo’s workaday passages.

Emerging from the ranks of the BBC Singers, whose vocalism enlivens every scene in which Leoncavallo employed choristers, mezzo-sopranos Rebecca Lodge as Simona and Eleanor Minney as Claretta, soprano Helen Neeves as Signora Dufresne, Milio’s wife, and tenor Edward Goater as the Dufresne family butler Marco epitomize the exalted measure of excellence to which the choir adheres. Throughout the performance, the choristers are individually and collectively credible in every guise in which the composer presents them.

Opera Rara releases have reliably utilized first-rate talent in supporting rôles, and this Zazà is among the label’s greatest successes in this regard. The boyishly handsome tenor Nicky Spence has never sounded better on disc than as the put-upon impresario Courtois in this performance of Zazà—quite a feat considering his impressive discography! Whenever the character appears, Spence’s evergreen voice infuses Leoncavallo’s conversational music with golden-toned life. Baritones Simon Thorpe as the put-upon stage manager Duclou and David Stout as the journalist Bussy further raise the vocal standards of the recording, and their strong work is seconded by the accomplished singing of tenors Christopher Turner as the writer Augusto and Robert Anthony Gardiner as the unnamed Signore.

The characterful vignettes created by the ladies of the supporting cast are no less vibrant than those engendered by their male colleagues. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge provides great pleasure with her impersonation of Zazà’s maid Natalia, the indefatigable energy of her singing heightening the character’s significance. Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, consummate mistress of a wide repertory spanning from unforgettable portrayals of Händel’s travesti heroes to rewarding ventures into Twenty-First-Century music, is captivating as Zazà’s perennially-inebriated mother Anaide. Even in a relatively small rôle, how an artist of Bardon’s stature can shine! As Floriana, Zazà’s rival on stage and in love, soprano Fflur Wyn is the oft-thwarted seconda donna to the life, her bright timbre, crisp diction, and take-no-prisoners vocalism unmistakably conveying the character’s vexation. Heeding the examples of her singing teammates, Julia Ferri portrays the speaking rôle of Totò, Milio’s daughter Antonietta, without artifice, enunciating her lines clearly and animatedly.

In reviewing a 2005 Alice Tully Hall concert performance of Zazà by Teatro Grattacielo, New York Times critic Bernard Holland praised the ‘strong, cultured baritone’ that Stephen Gaertner wielded in his interpretation of Zazà’s once-and-future lover Cascart. A decade later, that assessment applies even more fully to the singer’s Cascart for Opera Rara. Gaertner is a connoisseur’s baritone, one whose performances offer tantalizing glimpses of bygone eras in which singers like John Charles Thomas, Lawrence Tibbett, and Leonard Warren were emblematic of the magnificence of American baritone singing. In this portrayal of Cascart, a rôle created by Mario Sammarco, who originated the rôle of Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier for Umberto Giordano four years before the première of Zazà, and first sung at the Metropolitan Opera by Pasquale Amato, Gaertner sings with the unapologetic machismo of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, the true swagger of a nightclub star sure of his value and virility. From the beginning of his scene with Zazà in Act One, there is obvious tenderness in his approach to the part, however, and Gaertner woos and pleads without crooning. In Act Two, the sheer sonic impact of his singing of ‘Buona Zazà del mio buon tempo ascolta’ is arresting, but the character’s gentleness towards Zazà is again evident in the humor with which Gaertner’s Cascart goads her with ‘E s’anco ti spossare? saresti... una borghese!’ When the baritone sings ‘Zazà, piccola zingara, schiava d’un folle amore’ in Act Four, the extent to which Cascart’s destiny is intertwined with Zazà’s is palpable, and the sincerity of Gaertner’s delivery is moving. With a singer of Gaertner’s abilities in the rôle, Cascart’s part in the drama is all the more pivotal, and the misfortune of Zazà’s love for Milio is intensified by her neglect of a man so devoted to her.

Production Manager Kim Panter and her Opera Rara colleagues are owed considerable gratitude for adding one of today’s finest tenors to the label’s roster of compelling artists. Here performing Leoncavallo’s music for Zazà’s initially reluctant but ultimately fervent paramour Milio Dufresne with laudably firm, focused tone that meaningfully conveys the tension of complicated love, Italian tenor Riccardo Massi makes his Opera Rara début in a rôle to which his talents are ideally suited. With acclaimed portrayals of rôles as challenging as Alvaro and Radamès in Verdi’s La forza del destino and Aida and Cavaradossi and Calàf in Puccini’s Tosca and Turandot to his credit, Massi is an elegant singer with a voice reminiscent in its blend of strength and sweetness of that of his countryman Giovanni Malipiero. When Milio makes his first entrance in Act One, the performance as a whole gains momentum, and Massi voices ‘È un riso gentile quall’alba d’aprile’ with the Italianate fervor that the music desperately needs and has received on disc only from the slightly over-parted Giuseppe Campora. In the subsequent scene with Zazà, Milio’s burgeoning love simmers in Massi’s resonant vocalism until it can be restrained no longer: bursting forth like flood waters pulverizing a dam, his words of affection pour from the tenor’s throat, resonant but refined. In Act Two, Massi invests both ‘Mia Zazà, mio bene! Ragiona dunque; che follie son queste?’ and ‘Zazà, Zazà, non ti attristare’ with subtle inflections drawn from the text, giving Milio greater depth than Leoncavallo achieved in words or music. Milio’s aria in Act Three, ‘Oh mio piccolo tavolo ingombrato siccome ingombro è di sgomenti il cuore,’ its sentiments not unlike those of the heroine’s ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ in Act Two of Massenet’s Manon, is scaled by Massi as a genuinely inward meditation, the character’s desperate uncertainty magnified by the insurmountable solidity of the tenor’s singing. The emotional obstacle course of Act Four never disrupts the meticulously-maintained balance of Massi’s performance. The expressive immediacy of his articulations of ‘Zazà, tu mi rimproveri d’aver ti troppo amata?’ and ‘Ed ora io mi domando come, vicino a te, potei scordar la dolce mia buona creatura!’ reveals the essence of his artistry: there is beauty in even the ugliest moments of life. In tinging his performance with haunting morbidezza without resorting to Gigli-esque sobs and cheap effects, Massi makes Milio less a conceited prig than a man swept along by an illicit affection, his timbre burnished and his intonation absolutely secure throughout the range. How could a man who sings so well not be forgiven?

Breathing life into the too-easily-caricatured title rôle, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho allies glistening, well-controlled vocalism with ardent but polished emoting that often proves revelatory. Building upon a career firmly rooted in Opera Rara’s familiar bel canto territory, Jaho waded into the tempestuous waters of verismo with a heartrending portrayal of Puccini’s Suor Angelica at Covent Garden, and she is scheduled to bring her shattering Cio-Cio-San to Kennedy Center in Washington National Opera’s 2016 – 2017 Season. It is hardly coincidental that, four years after Leoncavallo’s opera was first performed, the first Zazà, Rosina Storchio, was also Puccini’s first Cio-Cio-San or that Geraldine Farrar was the first to sing both rôles at the Metropolitan Opera. Though a temperamental cabaret singer to the marrow of her bones, Jaho’s Zazà is most fully an open-hearted, deeply-feeling woman. Facing a bevy of distractions in Act One, Jaho’s Zazà fires ‘Ogni seme di bene in te si strugge, e diventa l’amore una parola!’ at Cascart with unmistakable meaning, and the soprano’s singing in the exasperated but dutiful daughter’s scene with her worrisome mother is a model of barely-concealed ennui. Then, singing ‘Io son diversa da voi – Non ardisco dirvelo, e pur d’un sogno mi beava!’ to Milio, she is transformed from the haughty creature of the stage into a disquietingly vulnerable woman hopelessly in love in spite of herself. Limning the progress of that love’s development in Act Two, Jaho voices ‘Amor mio, che farà non più vicina a te, la tua Zazà, la tua piccina’ expressively, her luminous upper register projected excitingly without forcing. Joining with her mother and Cascart, this Zazà dispatches ‘Ah, ah, ah! Che quadretto!’ charmingly, her irony as bewitching as her flirtation. Her exclamation of ‘Bisogna ch’ei scelga – O me o l’altra... Via!’ has the conviction of Tosca, the diva’s soul bared in a single phrase. Unexpectedly learning in Act Three that her lover is not only married but also father to a precious daughter, Zazà undergoes another metamorphosis, heartbreakingly depicted by Jaho in the scene with Milio’s daughter Totò. Here, singing ‘È finita!... Ammogliato... e un angelo ha per figlia!’ with mesmerizing simplicity that brings to mind Maria Callas’s singing in scenes like those with Norma’s and Cio-Cio-San’s children, the exuberant, fiery lover becomes the tragic heroine determined to act for the greater good. Confronting Milio in Act Four, the pain that courses through Jaho’s stark readings of ‘M’ami troppo? Mai quanto basta!... Ti par tedioso l’amor mio?’ and ‘Ebbene, si, so tutto! Che hai moglie... che mi fuggi!’ is tempered by an omnipresent acceptance of the inevitability of safeguarding the bond between father and child. Jaho sings ‘Che ho fatto? Egli parte! Egli va? Non torna indietro...’ with unbreakable determination, will triumphing over desire. Leoncavallo lunges at the jugular with Zazà’s final utterance of ‘Milio! torna! Milio... È all’angolo... È sparito! È non ritorna più... mai più! Tutto è finito,’ but Jaho prefers music to mania. Like Massi, she finds the light in the darkness of her character’s circumstances. How Zazà’s story ends is one of opera’s mysteries, but how her life is changed by a sole encounter with a young girl is made startlingly real—that verismo, at last!—by this uncommonly intuitive soprano.

Even in a performance as wonderful as this one, the reasons for Zazà’s neglect are apparent. The composer most often associated with Leoncavallo, Pietro Mascagni, remarked that, with the extraordinary success of his early opera Cavalleria rusticana, he was, in terms of renown, crowned before he was king. A similar assessment might justifiably be applied to Leoncavallo, whose Pagliacci ushered him into immortality in 1892, whilst his compositional skills and individual style were still developing. The difference is that several of Mascagni’s post-Cavalleria rusticana scores—L’amico Fritz, Guglielmo Ratcliff, and Il piccolo Marat, for instance—are confident, tightly-constructed, masterful works of a quality that Leoncavallo’s Zazà cannot claim as her own. Compared with Pagliacci and even Leoncavallo’s infrequently-performed but meritorious La bohème, premièred a year after the first performance of Puccini’s Bohème, Zazà amounts to an enjoyable journey without a clear destination: unlike the finest verismo scores, that is, it is attractive music that never really goes anywhere. Zazà is a heroine of a different mettle than Nedda, Mimì, and Musetta, however, and Ermonela Jaho succeeds in the context of this recording better than Leoncavallo managed to do at making her a three-dimensional woman of genuine emotions. Finally heard in the top-quality sound that the score deserves, the heart missing from previous recordings beats powerfully in this one. In short, hold the salt: all of the ingredients needed to savor Opera Rara’s Zazà are present in this performance in precisely the right proportions.