In November 2015 I joined Opera Rara for rehearsals, a CD recording and a concert performance of Leoncavallo’s opera Zaza in the role of Natalia.
Leoncavallo's Zaza was premiered in 1900, when Arturo Toscanini conducted at Milan's Teatro Lirico. Leoncavallo had already composed his best known opera Pagliacci (premiered 1892). Zaza is based on a play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, with Leoncavallo writing his own libretto. In the 20 years following its première, Zazà received over 50 new productions in opera houses around the world and became the chosen showcase for famous sopranos such as Rosina Storchio, who created the role, and Geraldine Farrar. The work is set in Paris and the world of the French cafe-concert (music-hall) with the title role, Zazà, a singer who falls in love with Milio, only to discover that he is married. Leoncavallo's recreation of the cafe-concert milieu has added authenticity because in the 1880's the young Leoncavallo lived in France and played the piano in such establishments. The opera is full of beautifully moving music as Zaza's relationship collapses but there are also infectious dance tunes and colourful orchestration in which Leoncavallo makes use of French popular music styles which he would have encountered in the capital.
Zazà was once hugely popular but has now fallen out of the repertoire and this recording and performance marked Opera Rara's first venture into the musical world of Leoncavallo and the operatic tradition of verismo. Opera Rara’s revival of Zazà was based on Leoncavallo’s own 1919 revision of his score which was carefully researched by their Associate Conductor and Italian opera specialist, Maurizio Benini.
Opera Rara was founded in the early 1970s by American Patric Schmid and Don White. Operas once threatened with extinction have now been brought vividly back to life through the Opera Rara recordings. Their current artistic Director is Sir Mark Elder. We had a week of rehearsals at Opera Rara’s base which is in Curtain Road, Shoreditch and then we travelled over to the BBC Maida Vale studios for the recording of the CD.
The concert performance of Zaza took place at the Barbican Centre conducted by Maurizio Benini with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers. It was my first chance to rehearse, record, perform (and discover!) an opera in this way. It was a fantastic experience to work with the wonderful cast, including soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role and tenor Riccardo Massi.
The Guardian commented, “History has generally disagreed with [Leoncavallo] – until last Friday night, with Opera Rara’s concert performance. It was an absolute stunner... High voltage-conducting and playing from Maurizio Benini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra added to the intensity... the whole thing was a knock out performance.”
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Maurizo Benini conductor
Ermonela Jaho Zazà
Riccardo Massi Milio
Stephen Gaertner Cascart
Patricia Bardon Anaide
David Stout Bussy
Kathryn Rudge Natalia
Fflur Wyn Floriana
Nicky Spence Courtois
Christopher Turner Augusto
Robert Anthony Gardiner Il Signore