RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): Zingari – Krassimira Stoyanova (Fleana), Arsen Soghomonyan (Radu), Stephen Gaertner (Tamar), Łukasz Goliński (Il vecchio); Opera Rara Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi, conductor [Recorded in Fairfield Concert Gall, Croydon, UK, 28 November – 1 December 2021; Opera Rara ORC61; 1 CD, 64:23; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Music (UK), and major music retailers and streaming services]
On stage and on records, opera’s history encompasses hosts of missed opportunities and fortuitous occurrences. Among particularly serendipitous instances of the latter phenomenon is the avid public reception for a 1911 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci prompting London’s Hippodrome Theatre to commission the composer to write a new opera for the venue. Two decades after the work’s première, the English capital remained enthralled by the dramatic intensity of Pagliacci—the quality, many contemporary critics argued, that Leoncavallo had not managed to replicate in his subsequent operas. Keen to create a new piece with theatrical impact that would rival that of Pagliacci, Leoncavallo chose as his source for the London opera’s plot Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 poem «Цыга́ны» (‘Gypsies’), a seminal work that—in the same year in which Pagliacci was first performed, incidentally—inspired the young Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko («Алеко»).
Elements of Pushkin’s stark narrative of colliding cultures and amorous transience adapted for the stage by Enrico Cavacchioli and Guglielmo Emanuel, Leoncavallo’s opera for the Hippodrome became Zingari, a seventy-minute work in two episodes that could be easily mounted alongside the sorts of popular entertainment for which the theatre was renowned in middle-class society during the reign of George V. Zingari having been conceived with the goal of giving Londoners a suitably similar successor to the composer’s best-known opera, reminiscences of Pagliacci are expected, but Leoncavallo brought to the composition of Zingari an array of musical and dramatic influences.
Parallels of Verdi’s charged juxtapositions of private distress and public celebration in Don Carlos and La forza del destino and the exoticism of Aida abound in Zingari, and there are passages in which shadows of Boito’s Mefistofele, Ponchielli’s La gioconda, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly lurk in Zingari’s Romani camp. Enriched by instruments more often heard in the operas of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold than in Italian verismo, Leoncavallo’s orchestral writing in Zingari demonstrates mastery of instrumental timbres and combinations that unexpectedly distinguish the composer, too often dismissed as a purveyor of banality, as a peer of Ravel and Respighi.
The vocal demands of Zingari’s four rôles—the free-spirited Roma youth Fleana; her father, il vecchio (the Old Man); the Roma poet, Tamar; and the aristocratic Radu—have much in common with those of Pagliacci’s principal players. Utilizing Martin Fitzpatrick’s reconstruction of the score’s original form, the revitalization necessitated by portions of the opera that may have been revised or removed before the opera’s first performance on 16 September 1912, falling victim to the Second World War’s destruction, Opera Rara’s exhilarating recording of Zingari, recorded in conjunction with an acclaimed concert performance, includes music missing from the score that was published by Sonzogno in 1912. In years past, José Carreras, Roberto Alagna, and Angela Gheorghiu recorded music from Zingari, but widely-known singers whose espousal might have improved the opera’s fortune overlooked it, the music’s difficulties even in truncated form exiling Zingari to the realm of missed opportunities. How differently its trajectory in the century since its creation might have been had Zingari benefited from the attention of singers like Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, and Tito Gobbi.
From the first bars of the opera’s spirited Overture to the harrowing final scene, in which the heroine and her Roma lover perish in a fire set by her husband, conductor Carlo Rizzi paces a performance that neither inflates Zingari’s melodrama nor makes apologies for it. As in his conducting of Verdi repertoire, Rizzi fuses elegance with energy, the prudence of his tempi accentuating the ingenuity of Leoncavallo’s escalations of musical tension. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and Opera Rara Chorus singers respond to Rizzi’s leadership with irreproachable musicality, the choristers’ singing compellingly conveying the Roma community’s insularity and vitality. The verismo orchestra augmented by celesta and harmonium, Zingari’s unique aural profile is nurtured by Rizzi’s intuitive handling of rhythmic transitions. Subtleties of Leoncavallo’s part writing are reliably audible, but Rizzi’s conducting, redolent of the tradition of Vittorio Gui and Victor de Sabata, engenders a true performance of Zingari in which soloists, chorus, and orchestra transport the listener from a Briish recording studio to the bank of the Danube.
Bringing an uncommonly youthful voice to a stereotypical operatic patriarch, Polish bass-baritone Łukasz Goliński sings Leoncavallo’s music for Il vecchio, Fleana’s father and the Roma camp’s de facto leader, with assurance and rousing authority. In Episode One, he sings ‘Doman risplenderà nel sole ancor!’ and ‘E sia! Rimani all’ombra della tenda’ commandingly, first confronting Fleana and her unknown lover with alarm and then welcoming Radu into the Roma society with paternal warmth. Less involved in the latter half of the opera, Il vecchio witnesses the horrific death of his daughter but enigmatically decrees that her killer, the spurned Radu, be allowed to escape, his action having been prompted by madness. Goliński imparts the father’s terror and helplessness as the flames engulf Fleana and Tamar, but an eery calmness permeates his absolution of Radu, suggesting that he assumes culpability for Fleana’s demise owing to his acceptance of an outsider into the Roma order. Goliński’s firm, focused vocalism lends each of Il vecchio’s utterances dramatic impact, characterizing him as a severe but thoughtful figure.
Wonderfully vivid of voice and personality as Cascart in Opera Rara’s 2015 recording of Zazà [reviewed here], baritone Stephen Gaertner ignites this Zingari with his charismatic portrayal of the Roma poet Tamar. The pragmatic bard confiding to Il vecchio in Episode One that Fleana has been observed lurking about the camp by night in the company of a stranger, Gaertner voices ‘C’è uno straniero che s’aggira a notte’ mysteriously, passion for Fleana already saturating his tones. The composer’s Lamento angoscioso sostenuto instruction is meticulously heeded in ‘Ah! taci! non lo diri,’ in which the baritone’s repeated top E♭s evoke the desperation of Tamar’s desire. Intruding on Fleana and Radu, Gaertner hurls Tamar’s Fs and G♭ at the lovers with extraordinary force and vocal confidence. The delicate ‘Ah! Canto notturno nel firmamento,’ heard from afar as Fleana and Radu celebrate their union, is bewitchingly sung, the song’s disquieting effect on Fleana wholly credible.
Guiding his Roma brethren to safety at the beginning of Episode Two, Tamar is no longer the idealist scorned by Fleana earlier in the opera. Proving himself to be a man of decisive action, he has kindled Fleana’s love, and Gaertner sings Tamar’s lines in their scene with bracing bravado. The fateful reprise of ‘Canto notturo nel firmamento’ is sung as mesmerizingly as its first incarnation, and ‘Bella! Bella! Sei qui tutta fremente!’ bristles with infatuation. Throughout the duet with Fleana, Gaertner’s vocalism smolders with sensuality, his singing of ‘Sono il rogo che s’accende’ suffused with longing. To Leoncavallo’s credit, the conflagration ignited by Radu consumes Fleana and Tamar without overwrought operatic histrionics, but the doomed pair’s terror is palpable in this performance. The dramatic immediacy of Gaertner’s unflappably secure, bronzed singing is consistently galvanizing, but the opera’s verismo intensity never goads him into shouting and snarling.
Musically, Radu is Zingari’s most conventional character, the romantic fervor of his vocal lines differentiating him from the Roma community. Singing the rôle with strength and sensitivity, tenor Arsen Soghomonyan gives the volatile man a noble bearing that heightens the shock of his ultimate act of vengeance. In the first part of the opera, Soghomonyan voices ‘Principe! Radu io son’ proudly, the top As ringing brightly, and the exultant top B in the duet with Fleana, its eroticism blossoming in his artfully-phrased ‘Eccolo finalmente il sogno,’ communicates the depth of Radu’s zeal. The totality of his surrender to Roma life permeates ‘Tutta la vita mia ti donerò,’ but sinister aspects of Radu’s devotion manifest in the latter part of the opera.
The despair of Soghomonyan’s voicing of ‘M’attendevi? Fleana, io t’ho pensato nella mia strada’ is tinged with mania, and his singing in the final row with Fleana discloses deteriorating emotional stability. Soghomonyan delivers ‘Perduto! Tutto! Ho perduto la pace vagabonda’ powerfully, Radu’s anguish bursting from the vocal line. The tessitura of Radu’s music is punishing, but Soghomonyan’s voice copes heroically, lacking Italianate squillo but steady and supported from the bottom of the compass to top C. The tenor’s depiction of Radu’s spiral into madness and murderous rage is all the more believable for being fashioned without lachrymose excess, his trust in the music’s capacity for storytelling yielding a performance of riveting sincerity.
Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the Twenty-First Century’s most versatile singers, and Leoncavallo’s writing for Fleana in Zingari makes use of virtually the full spectrum of her technical abilities. Stoyanova ideally partners her Radu, her voice also possessing little true morbidezza but deployed with absolute fidelity to the score. Coming from the periphery of the Roma encampment with Radu in Episode One, this Fleana voices ‘Discioglietelo prima dalle corde’ hypnotically, limning her fascination with the bold stranger, and Stoyanova projects ‘Tutte le rame scattano e si piegano!’ radiantly, the top As and B in the duet with Radu evincing a sense of elation. Darker accents color the timbre when her Fleana contemptuously dismisses Tamar, her account of ‘Addormentarmi, accarezzarmi nella pietà’ throbbing with disgust. The Roma song with which Fleana entertains her people is the least-persuasive portion of Stoyanova’s performance, the vocal filigree articulated cleanly but laboriously. She returns to form in the duet with Radu, the text and the vocal line enunciated with expressivity.
When her voice is first heard after the Intermezzo, Stoyanova’s Fleana has unmistakably undergone a crucial transformation, the softness of the amorous exchanges with Radu in the first episode replaced by a glinting vein of vocal steel that conveys exasperation and irrepressible impetuosity. In the scene with Tamar, the disdain of Episode One gives way to fascination, his rugged mysticism enthralling her. Disenfranchisement animates Stoyanova’s singing in the scene with Radu, the top Bs in her defiant ‘Tagliami! Abbraciami!’ striking at the hapless man like daggers. Fleana embracing her yearning for Tamar, ‘Incantesimo dell’ora che ci fa rabbrividir!’ in their final duet is voiced with abandon. Stylistically, her part in Zingari could hardly be more different from her previous undertaking for Opera Rara, the title rôle in Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, but there are undeniable temperamental kinships between Stoyanova’s Maria and Fleana. Surrounded in both instances by worthy colleagues, she embodies Opera Rara’s core mission, performing unjustly-neglected music with advocacy bolstered by musical and scholarly integrity. With this performance, Leoncavallo’s Zingari reclaims the appeal that it wielded 110 years ago.