TEXT: PETER FRANKEN
Leoncavallo is often seen as a one-day-wonder: after his opera debut with I Pagliacci, he did not achieve any lasting success. And because of the content of that one-acter, Leoncavallo is of course easily dismissed as a verismo composer.
In his La Bohème from 1897, there is still some verismo, but Zazà, with which the composer was successful for a while after its premiere in 1900, is no more than a small middle-class drama. Albeit with a singer as instigator which makes it a bit bohemian and thus we are already moving towards the harsh reality of life. In 2020, the work was on the programme of Theater an der Wien and a DVD recording was made of it, with Svetlana Aksenova in the title role.
In the end, nothing terrible happens in Zazà, nobody dies and the main character does not succumb to heartbreak, at least on stage. She is the star of a small musical theatre in Saint Etienne and has set her sights set on Milio, an unremarkable businessman who likes to hang around the dressing room to get a flavour of the artistic life. Milio is not looking for an affair which only makes him more attractive to Zazà. During a scene in which she is alone with him for the first time, she sets off an assault in which she literally climbs the man.
The delightful Svetlana Aksenova shows a completely different side here than I was used to seeing. In Amsterdam, she played some modest sweet girls like Fevronja, Lisa and Elisabeth, but here she is a tigress on the warpath. She acts so naturally and moves so easily that it is fun to watch. Seductress and comedienne all in one and of course, in the meantime, she just keeps on singing.
Milio manages to prolong his presence in Saint Etienne for six months during which he has a stormy affair with Zazà. But he must return to his family in Paris and then emigrate to America. When Zazà is tipped off by her former lover and colleague Cascart that Milio is married, she hurries to Paris to try and disprove the story. Or to confirm it, but then of course with the expectation to hear that he has for a long time wanted to get rid of his wife and that he only loves her, Zazà. But, alas, things turn out differently.
She manages to get hold of the address and pays a visit, just as Milio’s wife is taking her husband to the station for a final business trip to Saint Etienne. But their daughter Totò is at home and by talking to her, Zazà realises that she is in the process of upsetting a happy marriage.
Nevertheless, on her return she tries to make Milio choose her after all, but when she announces that she has spoken to his wife and child and told them everything, Milio goes crazy. Zazà knows enough, her great love has chosen for his family, it is over. In a real verismo opera, this last scene would, of course, be accompanied by the necessary violence, with one of the two stabbing the other. But here we are dealing with bourgeois verismo and thus the drama is limited to distress and grief. It is quite exciting, by the way, and it is very intense.
The stage setting is simple, a few scantily furnished rooms on a revolving stage, that are supposed to represent the dressing room, the love nest and the living room of Milio’s Parisian flat. The costuming is fairly contemporary and Zazà in particular is given a series of beautiful dresses which, of course, always have to be taken off with the help of a man. She wants to be the centre of attention, as a singer on stage and as a woman behind the scenes. Lack of attention from her mother has scarred this fatherless girl for life.
Aksenova is on stage singing for about 100 minutes, an absolute marathon that she seems to be able to complete with ease. Not showing a trace of fatigue from beginning to end, she is in excellent voice and gives a wonderful interpretation of the title heroine.
Nikolai Schukoff has considerably less to sing as Milio, but he certainly makes his mark on the scenes in which he is present. His aria at the beginning of the third act is moving: ‘O mio piccolo tavolo….Mai più, Zazà’.
Christopher Maltman attracts attention with his interpretation of Cascart, beautifully acted and beautifully sung. For a moment, he is on stage together with Zazà when the audience asks for ‘The Kiss’ as an encore. It is a playful scene with a different musical idiom, sounding something like Léhar. In the rest of the opera, with some imagination, we can hear short fragments of Pagliacci and musical lines reminiscent of Leoncavallo’s Bohème. It is all very pleasant but the music does not stick.
This recording is not one of a forgotten masterpiece but rather it is a curiosity and as such highly recommended. And if not because of Leoncavallo, then definitely because of Aksenova’s interpretation!
My ‘old friend’ Stefan Soltesz is the musical director. I have sat in the audience countless times in Antwerp and Essen when he was conducting there. I always held him in high esteem and it is a pleasure to hear him again.
Photo’s © Monica Rittershaus