It begins like something out of Hollywood’s golden age: a trembling rhapsody that promises extravagant drama and hopeless passion. What makes Zazà so good is that it sidesteps predictability and delivers neither.
Less a melodramatic tragedy than a credible story of love, adultery and deception, Zazà (pronounced ‘Tsa-tsa’) is no doomed heroine but a wronged woman who turns the tables on her caddish lover and emerges stronger and wiser.
Yet this opera has an emotional heart that beats with the vehemence of the biggest verismo monster. When cabaret singer Zazà (Ermonela Jaho) discovers that her businessman lover Milio Dufresne (Riccardo Massi) is married, she inveigles her way anonymously into his home and is changed forever by a chance meeting with his young daughter. This scene, the core of the opera, is both delicate and devastating: an encounter between passion and innocence that’s fabulously operatic. It’s the pivot around which the work revolves.
Act One is a tour de force, with the representation of ‘real’ stage performances and backstage shenanigans underpinned by elaborations on music-hall melodies. Leoncavallo’s colourful brush strokes characterise the large cast with economy and humour and, as with Puccini’s La rondine, the waltz is never far away. The Act ends as it began, with that proto-Hollywood motif, but now transformed into the hungry passion of Zazà and Milio’s embrace.
A more conventional second Act (romance and discovery) opens the door to that scene between Milio’s daughter and mistress. It makes you sit bolt upright. If the third Act’s opening woodwinds seem to hint at something more bucolic than a Parisian apartment, the music soon draws itself indoors where tension takes centre stage. Exquisitely enacted by Jaho and young Julia Ferri, it’s a subtle, complex and heartbreaking picture – a world away from the composer’s ubiquitous Pagliacci. Zazà’s heart is pierced not in the usual verismo manner with a knife, but with tenderness. Her own generosity and goodness, qualities that the Albanian soprano always projects so well, shine through.
The final Act, back in the music-hall, is of retribution in which reason overrides passion but cannot wholly extinguish it. The absence of melodrama during Zazà’s repudiation of Milio renders this conclusion especially moving.
Maurizio Benini, a regular visitor to Covent Garden, has not always proved to be the most probing of conductors even in his native Italian repertoire, but this opera has galvanised him – and understandably so. He inspires the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra to rapturous heights.
Jaho and Massi enact their romance with heartfelt engagement while baritone Stephen Gaertner, who plays Zazà’s singing partner and confidant Cascart, balances their relationship with a more earthbound humanity as he spearheads the outer Acts. All three stars are in prime vocal form. Supported by distinguished work from Fflur Wyn, Kathryn Rudge and Patricia Bardon, plus outstanding interventions from Nicky Spence as the impresario Courtois and David Stout as a journalist, Opera Rara has cut no corners in rehabilitating this unjustly neglected opera; the booklet includes the libretto, an English translation and photographs.
Indeed, the lovingly realised recording deserves to free Leoncavallo from his ‘one-hit-wonder’ label. Zazà is a glowing masterpiece that will come into its own when it is staged (although this superb recording will do very nicely anyway). The psychologically challenging subject matter will only succeed when it has a sensitive, sure-footed director who can bend in the breeze. It’s coming to Opera Holland Park next summer. Let’s hope they’ve got one.