Opera Rara – Leoncavallo’s Zingari – Krassimira Stoyanova, Arsen Soghomonyan & Stephen Gaertner; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Puccini, arr. Carlo Rizzi
Tosca Symphonic Suite [world premiere]

Zingari – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Enrico Cavacchioli & Guglielmo Emanuel after Alexander Pushkin’s The Gypsies [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]

Fleana – Kressimira Sotyanova
Radu – Arsen Soghomonyan
Tamar – Stephen Gaertner
Il Vecchio – Łukasz Goliński

Opera Rara Chorus

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Carlo Rizzi

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 December, 2021
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Opera Rara’s latest project has been to restore an opera by Leoncavallo which was composed for, and premiered in, London. As a verismo opera Zingari (The Gypsies, 1912) clearly builds upon the elements of romantic passion, jealousy and revenge which made Pagliacci so popular although, intriguingly, it is based on a narrative poem by Pushkin which had already served as the source for Rachmaninov’s Aleko. In some ways Pushkin’s work also influenced the drama which was the basis for Carmen, so it is unsurprising to find that Fleana is a similarly sexually self-aware woman who plays off the attentions of different men against each other, with equally fatal consequences. In general Zingari is a more musically and dramaturgically conventional work than Leoncavallo’s great first success – there is no play within a play, and the music is more richly and symphonically through-composed in the manner of Puccini, compared with the somewhat terser textures of Pagliacci, even if Radu’s short aria lamenting Fleana’s abandoned love for him is akin to Canio’s ‘Vesti la giubba’.

If it is precisely because Zingari closely apes the formula of Pagliacci that has caused its deep neglect now, yet was effectively the reason for its initial success as Leoncavallo’s second most-popular work in his lifetime after the latter work. To opera aficionados that would be justification enough for resurrecting it now. But in this new reconstruction of the original version from the composer’s vocal score (in the absence of the orchestral parts) without his later cuts, Carlo Rizzi demonstrated that the music attains considerable emotional power with some memorable themes and colourful textures, even if it may not exactly amount to a forgotten masterpiece. Rizzi brought out the ebullience of the music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – particularly the resounding choruses of gypsy folk, emphatically projected by the Opera Rara Chorus – as well as the slow-burn passion of the love music for Radu and Fleana, and the gypsy-tinged music elsewhere (augmented melodic intervals and yearning downward turns of phrase in the Phrygian mode aplenty). With added percussion, the opening chorus sounds somewhat like a tame ‘Anvil’ Chorus, and Tamar’s twice-given Canto notturno perhaps evokes something of the same mood as Azucena’s ‘Stride la Vampa’ from Il trovatore, if written for a low male voice rather than female.

Arsen Soghomonyan sang the part of Radu, the prince who has left noble society and fallen in love with the gypsy girl, Fleana, with grainy but romantic ardour. Tellingly he stuttered his first lines in an uncertain, defensive manner as he introduced himself to the unfamiliar world of the gypsies, and then rose to more sustained passion – first amorous and then vengefully murderous once Fleana’s attentions turn to Tamar, her fellow gypsy, as he decides to imprison them and set the building alight. Kressimira Stoyanova’s Fleana was confident and arresting, exhibiting bright and steely colours as she played up to Radu’s attentions, but also coaxingly tender elsewhere, provoking both his and Tamar’s amorous feelings, as well as their rage. Her winning virtuosity was demonstrated more through that emotional adaptability than the relatively controlled delivery of any florid lines in the vocal part. Stephen Gaertner (replacing Carlo Álvarez) gave a dark-hued account of the role of Tamar, expressing his pain at Fleana’s initial rejection and continuing with a certain inscrutability thereafter. Łukasz Goliński took the small role of the Old Man, Fleana’s father, whose few lines were mainly declaimed with patriarchal authority if not outright musicality. This concert performance achieved compelling drama and surely made the case for it to be staged – perhaps a ‘Cav’ and ‘Zin’ would ring the changes admirably in the usual pairing, or an all-Leoncavallo ‘Pag’ and ‘Zin’.

The programme opened with the premiere of Rizzi’s symphonic suite compiled from Puccini’s Tosca. His notes describe it as a symphonic poem rather than a medley of themes, and observe that no new or additional music has been composed as such – it is a melding of passages from the opera, if without the vocal line, to draw attention to the complexity of Puccini’s orchestrations. The result was perhaps something more like Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, than other suites adapted from operas, insofar as the music comes and goes like a dream or memory of the opera concerned, in a rather attenuated form, compared with their more organic and dramatic flow, with voices, in the opera itself. The Siegfried Idyll is more successful however as Wagner’s material consists of pithy motifs, ripe for development, whereas in Rizzi’s symphonic suite the passages of sustained melody are far less malleable, and are only glimpsed with tantalising brevity, rather than followed through fully – chunks of ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ are present, but not complete. The work is more ‘suite’ than ‘symphonic’ therefore, and perhaps provides a useful digest of the opera for concert use, but others may find it frustratingly undeveloped (not so much bleeding chunks even, as morsels). The RPO began portentously with the opera’s ominous chords, followed by scurrying excitement and energy, but the sequences of Tosca and Cavaradossi’s more intimate music were somewhat under-characterised, and there could have been more drama overall. But there was no doubt that, had one not known the source of the music, the compilation is narratively descriptive and vivid, as Rizzi cultivated a sense of movement and tension throughout the continuous score. It certainly served as an appetiser for the stronger meat of the Leoncavallo.

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