To have Opera Rara record a work dating from 1900 (and to record it in the composer’s revision of 1919) might feel a bit like mission creep for a company devoted to ‘exploring the forgotten opera heritage of the 19th century’. I’m all for it, though, and this lavish new recording of Zazà is very welcome, exhibiting all the usual hallmarks of care and attention we’ve come to expect from the label. The work itself is fascinating, too, dating from the early part of Leoncavallo’s difficult post-Pagliacci career. And it shares several concerns with the earlier opera, as well as some elements with Cilea’s Adriana Lecovreur of 1902: Zazà is a performer (in Paris’s Alcazar nightclub) betrayed in love, and there’s a sense that, Canio-like, she’s going to have to get on with the show after her own final words, ‘Tutto è finito’, with their unmistakable echo of those of Pagliacci.
One important difference is that no one gets stabbed – we’re in civilised fin de siècle Paris – and this is all about small-scale personal tragedy. But not even Laura Protano-Biggs’s excellent, in depth booklet essay can feign much interest in the plot, describing it as ‘in a sense negligible’. Indeed, in a way the opera feels like an experiment in trying to make us care about events that are essentially quite difficult to care about: Zazà has an affair with the philandering businessman Milio Dufresne; she finds out he’s married; they part ways. There are some interesting extra details along the way, not least the episode in which Zazà visits Milio’s house to find out the truth, briefly meeting the wife before having a lengthy encounter with his young daughter – a spoken role.
But, for anyone brought up on standard narratives of eternal true love, there’s inevitably something anticlimactic and unfulfilling about this mere dalliance, even if the opera gains modernist brownie points for portraying it. I worry, though, that the piece’s ostensible modernity is undermined by its implication that the actress Zazà (and a gypsy to boot) has essentially strayed too far from the conventional path to find the redemption of a ‘normal life’ she seeks, even if we are clearly supposed to feel that her decision not to tell Milio’s wife of the affair gives her redemption of a sort.
Nevertheless, Leoncavallo’s music is charming, shifting seamlessly (and often) between the easy-going, wistful lyricism of the love scenes and lively depictions of the hustle and bustle of the theatrical milieu; but, as Protano-Biggs notes, the composer was his own worst enemy in pursuing an exclamatory style that meant that none of the title character’s music was easily disseminated as discrete arias. It’s an idiom, however, that suits Ermonela Jaho extremely well, playing to the Albanian soprano’s remarkable dramatic strengths. The voice itself – captured close-up in the recording from the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios – has a slight lack of focus, but it conveys the character’s emotions powerfully enough to avoid the mawkishness to which they might otherwise be prone.
As Milio, Riccardo Massi sings with wonderful old-school charm, the voice modest in size but lyrical, relaxed and plangent; listen to his carefree Act 1 ditty ‘È un riso gentile’ for an example of his seductiveness. Stephen Gaertner is eloquent and touching as Cascart, Zazà’s old friend, and makes the most of his Act 4 aria. Patricia Bardon offers a vividly over-the-top performance as Anaide, her jealous mother, partial to the bottle, and there are excellent supporting performances from Kathryn Rudge as her maid, Nicky Spence as the impresario Courtois, David Stout and Fflur Wyn. Maurizio Benini conducts with an easy feel for the score’s shifting moods, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play with real charm and affection. Fascinating, and recommended: it’s difficult to imagine a better case ever being made for this delightful, touching piece on disc.