Ruggero Leoncavallo
Theater an der Wien, Vienna

Go to film/video...

Vittoria Antonuzzo (Toto) and Svetlana Aksenova (Zaza) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien
Svetlana Aksenova (Zaza) and Nikolai Schukoff (Milio) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien
Zaza Act 1 - backstage at the theatre Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien
Enkelejda Shkosa (Zaza's mother Anaide) and Christopher Maltman (Cascart) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien
Svetlana Aksenova (Zaza) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien
Nikolai Schukoff (Milio) and Svetlana Aksenova (Zaza) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Theater an der Wien

Puccini may be the founder of verismo opera, but while his characters' emotions are familiar enough, the worlds they live in—historical, exotic—can seem distant from the one that you and I inhabit.

Leoncavallo took the concept to its next logical level in Zaza, and though it may lack the overarching melodic span that would always distinguish the operas of his predecessor, it achieves a greater sense of realism in representing great drama as experienced by ordinary people, with their ordinary ambitions and weaknesses in the here and now.

Zaza is a singer in the musical theatre, who falls for the businessman Milio Dufresne, only to find he is already married. However, when she visits his home, expecting him to leave his wife, she encounters his daughter Toto, and realising how much the girl loves her father, for her sake makes her excuses and leaves, later ending her affair.

Leoncavallo lays on the sentiment with a shovel for Zaza’s meeting with Toto—one of the reasons for the opera’s triumph in 1900 and maybe for its neglect since—but thanks to superb performances by Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova and Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff, one never doubts that these are real flesh and blood characters.

Aksenova gives it her all in that scene above. Not even her expressive, full-toned soprano can rescue the musically tepid passage that follows, but in the triple-time reunion with Milio with uneasy pretence on both sides, and in Zaza’s act IV arioso "Ebbene, si, so tutto!", there is real pathos. The vivacious coquette, who has so amusingly seduced Milio in the first act, walks away broken-hearted but not quite broken.

Whereas Zaza earns our unmitigated sympathy, Milio invites only understanding to go with moral disapproval. His act III aria "O mio piccolo tavolo", regretting that his extra-marital affair must end, is a simple, touching melody that suits his warm syrupy voice perfectly and is sung beautifully. One never doubts the authenticity of this relationship.

Christopher Maltman evokes fellow feeling as Zaza’s discarded lover Cascart, and sings with impressive dynamic control although I have a problem with his heavy vibrato. Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa has fun with the role of Zaza’s dipsomaniac mother, and Juliette Mars, perhaps representing another side of the singer’s personality, plays her friend Natalia with reticent respectability.

Leoncavallo’s lyric comedy has touches of French café music, of which he had experience as an entertainer in Paris, and the setting of the first act in the backstage of a theatre, allows the insertion of an aria for Zaza that would otherwise be out of keeping with the naturalistic approach.

By coincidence, this production by Christoph Loy was released on DVD on the same date as another: his Rusalka for Madrid in which the water nymph is recast as an injured ballerina, that one set in a theatre foyer.

And despite different designers, both productions include among their background extras white-face clowns (here Leoncavallo’s own sly reference to Pagliacci), someone dressed as Stan Laurel, resting actors and a ballerina or three (counting one in drag). He must get a discount on the costumes.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

Are you sure?