Leoncavallo’s Zaz‡ by Opera Rara

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s eponymous opera lives by its heroine.
Tackling this exhausting, and perilous, role at the Barbican Hall, Argentinian
soprano Ermonela Jaho gave an absolutely fabulous performance, her range,
warmth and total commitment ensuring that the hooker’s heart of gold shone

This concert performance of Leoncavallo’s Zaz‡ by Opera Rara
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, saw the company make its maiden venture into
verismo waters. Written in 1900, eight years after I
, and first performed at the Teatro Lirico di Milano conducted by
Toscanini, Zaz‡ was initially a huge popular success. In the 20 years
following its premiËre, the opera received over 50 new productions in opera
houses around the world and the title role became a show-case for a number of
prima donnas, including Rosina Storchio (who created the role), Emma Carelli
and Geraldine Farrar. The latter even selected it for her farewell performance
at the Metropolitan Opera in 1922.

At the time of the premiere of Zaz‡, things must have looked
auspicious for Leoncavallo. His career seemed to be on a roll: the acclaim
received by his two previous operas, I Pagliacci (1892) and La
(1897), suggested he was enjoying a golden streak. Now, though,
Zaz‡ — along with the almost all of Leoncavallo’s twenty or so
operas and operettas — has fallen out of the repertoire. Pagliacci
alone assures the longevity of the composer’s name, and even that opera
rarely stands alone but is ‘coupled’, as ‘Pag’ to Mascagni’s

The libretto of Zaz‡ is based upon a highly successful play by
Pierre Breton and Charles Simon, written in 1898 for the flamboyant
actress, Gabrielle Rejane. The action takes place in contemporary
Saint-…tienne and Paris, and takes us back-stage at a seedy music-hall where
we follow the emotional breakdown of the chanteuse Zaz‡ when she
discovers that the man whom she loves is already married.

The tale is predictably tawdry and trashy but it has a surprising, if
somewhat syrupy, ending. The fÍted cabaret star Zaz‡ wins a bet with the
journalist Bussy that she can seduce one of the frequent visitors to the
theatre, Milio Dufresne — an international businessman on the prowl for a
casual fling — even though he seems indifferent to her charms. Zaz‡’s
fellow singer Cascart, smitten and rejected by the diva, reveals to the now
infatuated Zaz‡ that Milio is having an affair. Cascart and Anaide, the
singer’s alcoholic mother, try to persuade her to leave Milio but Zaz‡
refuses and determines to travel to Paris to confront him. Milio is in fact
married and has a young daughter, TotÚ (an affectionate diminutive for
Antonietta). When Zaz‡ meets TotÚ she is overcome by, and identifies with,
the child’s vulnerability, and recalls the unhappiness of her own childhood
which she is anxious to spare TotÚ. Showing respectful deference to Madame
Dufresne, whose essential goodness she recognises, Zaz‡ returns to
Saint-Etienne. When Milio follows her, the low-born courtesan — now a sadder
but sager woman — surprises us, and perhaps herself, by demonstrating greater
moral integrity than the high-born gentleman, and in so doing she exposes the
cad’s callousness.

Leoncavallo’s score is a riot of vivid colour, bursting with infectious
dance tunes and inventive musico-dramatic flourishes. It moves fluently between
arioso and aria, the big numbers emerging naturally from the ebb and flow of
the protagonists’ exchanges. Maurizio Benini encouraged the BBC Symphony
Orchestra to relish the Italianate lusciousness and allowed us to appreciate
Leoncavallo’s gift for orchestration. But, with the large orchestra — which
included a ‘cabaret band’ placed stage left during Act 1 — pushed right
to the fore of the stage, and Benini disinclined to restrain his players’
vitality, the singers were sometimes overpowered in the more conversational
episodes, especially during the first Act when it was initially quite difficult
to ascertain who was who in busy cabaret scenes. However, amid the
Puccini-esque scraps and fragments, some terrific tunes emerge from the melodic
cul-de-sacs, including one soaring upwelling of sentimentality that serves as a
sort of leitmotif for Zaz‡’s love, and Benini ensured that the lyric
high-points packed their punch.

The orchestral theatricality was not always matched by the ‘staging’,
though it’s hard to know what stage director Susannah Waters should have done
given that the small front strip of stage available for the singers was strewn
with music stands, and most of the cast, wearing modern evening dress, were
pretty bound to their scores. There was some atmospheric lighting, the dazzling
pinks of night-time revelry giving way to the cool green of morning sobriety,
and some distinguishing of the setting — the cabaret band were replaced by a
single piano in Dufresne’s apartment, upon which TotÚ does her daily
practice. But only Jaho truly ‘lived’ her part, unstintingly using her
voice, face and body to convey Zaz‡’s self-consuming passions and
sentiments. The opera has only one off-stage women’s chorus — sung
attractively by the ladies of the BBC Singers; it therefore seemed unnecessary
to seat a full chorus behind the orchestra for the duration of the evening when
for the most part they had little more to do than applaud the charming ‘Kiss
Duet’ with which Zaz‡ and Cascart entertain the night-club clientele. TotÚ
is a spoken role and Leoncavallo supplies just light orchestral support for her
dialogue, but while Julia Ferri’s enunciation of the lines was touching in
its directness and openness, the over-amplification and wide reverberation
surreally disembodied her voice from the dainty figure we saw before us.

But such minor misgivings were swept aside by Jaho’s incredible commitment
and vocal allure. She ran the emotional gamut from predatory sensuality to
euphoric happiness to anguished sorrow, utterly convincing us and drawing us
into her tragic journey. The lower-lying passages may sometimes have made less
impact, and occasionally Jaho strayed sharp at the top, but who cares when one
is enveloped by surging, supply lyrical outpourings that are by turns glossily
luxurious and exquisitely delicate.

A scheduled replacement for the indisposed Nicola Alaimo, Stephen Gaertner
was excellent as Cascart, the rejected lover whose indignant vexation is
out-weighted by his undiminished love. Gaertner was rare among the cast in
singing securely off the score. He was commanding in his big arias, his rich,
dark baritone rising powerfully above the orchestral roar; and his nuanced and
expressive phrasing made for convincing interaction with Jaho in their duets.
Cascart’s Act 4 show-stopper, ‘Zaza, piccola zingara’, was one of the
high-lights of the evening.

As Dufresne, Riccardo Massi revealed a strong upper register
capable of carrying a clear line, and the tenor’s phrasing was unfailingly
intelligent and sensitive. But, I found his lower voice a little withheld and
he had a tendency, initially at least, to approach notes from below. Massi cut
an elegant figure but didn’t make much effort to ‘act’; that is, until
Dufresne’s self-justifying Act 4 aria when Massi convincingly revealed the
shallowness and self-pity of this bounder’s grumbles about the complexities
of his messy romantic predicament. His lack of remorse was worthy of a

A strong cast filled the smaller roles, with Nicky Spence (the impresario,
Courtois) and Kathryn Rudge (Natalia, Zaz‡’s maid) making a particularly
strong impression. Moving from the ranks of the BBC Singers, and stepping in at
24-hours’ notice to fill the indisposed Patricia Bardon’s shoes, Rebecca
Lodge used her bright mezzo effectively to convey the boisterousness of the
boozy Anaide, Zaz‡’s mother. Soprano Helen Neeves was a dignified Mme
Dufresne, and as Floriana (a singer), Fflur Wyn sparkled in her Act 1 aria.

Perhaps a fully staged production is necessary to do justice to
Zaz‡’s melodramatic excesses — although a concert performance at
least spares us a mawkish ending. On this occasion, Jaho almost single-handedly
provided passion and theatre sufficient to convince us of the veracity of the
drama. At the close she seemed, understandably, drained somewhat dazed. She had
powerfully engaged us all in Zaz‡’s agonising predicament and utterly
deserved the admiring and affectionate adulation bestowed.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Zaz‡ — Ermonela Jaho, Milio Dufresne — Riccardo Massi, Cascart
— Stephen Gaertner, Anaide — Rebecca Lodge, Bussy — David Stout, Natalia
— Kathryn Rudge, Floriana — Fflur Wyn, Courtois — Nicky Spence, Signora
Dufresne — Helen Neeves, Duclou (a stage manager) — Simon Thorpe, Augusto
(a waiter) — Christopher Turner, Il Signore — Robert Anthony Gardiner,
Marco (the Dufrenes’ butler) — Edward Goater, TotÚ — Julia Ferri (spoken
role); Susannah Waters — director, Maurizo Benini — conductor, BBC Symphony
Orchestra, BBC Singers. Barbican Hall, London, Friday, 27 November

image_description=Riccardo Massi and Ermonela Jaho [Photo by Russell Duncan]
product_title=Leoncavallo’s Zaz‡ by Opera Rara
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Riccardo Massi and Ermonela Jaho [Photo by Russell Duncan]