Leoncavallo’s Zazà – A brief survey of selected recordings
by Ralph Moore
There are only half a dozen or so recordings of Leoncavallo’s Zazà; two of those are a studio-made and on the Bongiovanni and Opera Rara labels, and the rest are live. I consider four recordings here; the others are in any case generally unavailable or hard to obtain, although some live performances are available on various download sites and even in CD-R form on eBay. The one on Cetra conducted by Silipigni is the earlier of two live performances I review here; the other, on the Gala label, is conducted by Maurizio Arena again in Turin with the same orchestra and chorus nearly a decade later. Confusion arises from the fact that those four recordings encompass no fewer than three different versions of the opera, as I will explain.
In his 2005 review of that Cetra recording, Chris Howell comments upon differences in the score and the savage cuts, listing timings act by act and musical variations, compared with a live Gavazzeni recording now available only as an mp4 download from House of Opera; I have not heard that and am confining this mini-survey to the CD sets I own. Presumably unbeknown to Chris, Cetra were in fact using the so-called nuova versione made by conductor Renzi Bianchi in 1947, which is essentially an abridgment and re-arrangement. As a result, it is 36 minutes shorter than the Gala live radio broadcast performance and 49 minutes shorter than the Opera Rara studio recording which makes a point of clarifying that its “revival of Zazà is based on Leoncavallo’s own 1919 revision of his score which has been carefully researched by Maurizio Benini.” In other words, both Gala and Opera Rara present the “streamlined” ultima versione Leoncavallo sanctioned shortly before his death; only the Bongiovanni studio recording proclaims itself to be the “unabridged version – first edition” heard at the premiere in 1900, which contains fully an hour’s more music than Cetra – and of course Leoncavallo had nothing to do with that Bianchi version, as it was made nearly three decades after his death. However, despite declaring a preference for Zazà even over Pagliacci, the fact that Leoncavallo later conceded the need to revise and shorten the opera – if only by about a quarter of an hour or so – implies that he recognised that its plot was too flimsy to sustain an audience’s interest over two and a half hours, so perhaps Bianchi’s abridgment was not such a desecration; I certainly enjoy it. Indeed, in the process or listening and re-listening to these four recordings for the purposes of this survey, I have found a new appreciation for the colour and variety of the work and can now better understand what at first seems to be Leoncavallo’s inexplicable favouring of the score over his earliest triumph.
Zazà, in common with all of Leoncavallo’s other operas, has of course always lain in the shadow of Pagliacci, and is now probably even less often performed than his La bohème which, like Zazà, enjoyed considerable success, but were both inevitably unfavourably compared to Leoncavallo’s first mega- hit and have now virtually passed out of the repertoire- although Zazà was successfully revived at Holland Park a few years ago. Indeed, everything Leoncavallo subsequently wrote is now neglected to the extent that in most people’s minds he has been relegated to the melancholy status of an operatic One-Hit-Wonder, alongside fellow verismo composers Mascagni, Giordano and Cilea. His later opera, Zingari, has thrice this year been reviewed on this site, by and Mike Parr, Michael Cookson and me; I was the least enthusiastic about both the performance and the music itself but we all agree that it does not reach the exalted level of Pagliacci, so the stigma of its being a “pale imitation” remains.
However, Zazà is less susceptible to such odious comparisons because it does not rely upon the staple verismo ingredients of violence and sensationalism; nobody dies and it is a gentler tale whose music has its origins in Leoncavallo’s youthful experience of Parisian music halls – the first act is set in the Alcazar de St Etienne – and its storyline is more akin to Puccini’s La rondine and Verdi’s La traviata, in that it treats of a fallen woman’s noble renunciation of her lover – in this case, when she discovers he is married. In many ways, it most mirrors La traviata, without the tragic ending. The only moment of real nastiness is when Dufresne throws Zazà to the ground, denouncing her as a slut (“Sgualdrina” – the same curse that Michele utters between his teeth upon his unhappy wife Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro eighteen years later.) Other reasons for its neglect must surely reside in the absence of instantly ear-catching tunes of the kind in which Pagliacci abounds and a certain potential mawkishness in the scene where under an assumed name Zazà visits the home of her deceitful Parisian businessman lover and encounters his small daughter; their conversation painfully reminds her of her own dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic single mother and she determines to give up the relationship. Nonetheless , I think the unusual combination of the child’s spoken responses to Zazà’s sung questions works rather well and is touching. The libretto, written by the composer himself, who had studied literature in the University of Bologna, is more than serviceable and the opera itself is still vivid and entertaining; its eponymous leading role once attracted divas such as Rosina Storchio who premiered it under Toscanini’s baton in 1900, as she did several verismo opera by a roster of famous composers, Geraldine Farrar, who chose to premiere it in the US for her farewell performances at the Metropolitan in 1922 and later, Mafalda Favero. More recently, it has been less favoured by big-name sopranos.
Given that this will presumably be an opera unfamiliar to most, a libretto is useful; the Cetra recording offers an English synopsis and a libretto in Italian only but in any case it uses the heavily abridged version, so we are comparing apples with oranges. The Gala provide just a brief synopsis in English but there is a bonus of over twenty minutes of excerpts from Franchetti’s Germania sung By Aldo Bertocci and Nelly Pucci – albeit in poor sound. The two studio recordings each contain a complete Italian libretto with an English translation.
While it is true that the music is melodically somewhat diffuse, I find its constant lively invention sufficiently engaging to make me question why it has fallen into abeyance; it works as drama. Excerpts and arias continue to be performed, however; by far the most popular and recorded item in the opera is the baritone aria , “Zazà, piccolo zingara” – versions by Titta Ruffo, Apollo Granforte, Tito Gobbi and Robert Merrill are especially well known – but the tenor aria “O mio piccolo tavolo” has also featured in recitals by such as Giovanni Martinelli and José Carreras, as has Zazà‘s aria “Mamma? lo non l’ho avuta mai”, too, sung by Montserrat Caballé, and Renée Fleming included Zazà‘s extended exchange with the child Totò in her “Verismo” album.
In short, anyone who likes the verismo genre would do well to become acquainted with any of the four recordings below.
Alfredo Silipigni – 1969, live composite radio broadcast; Warner Fonit
Zazà – Clara Petrella (soprano)
Milio Dufresne – Giuseppe Campora (tenor)
Cascart – Tito Turtura (baritone)
Mamma Anaide – Elinor Parker (mezzo-soprano)
Floriana – Adriana Buda (soprano)
Signora Dufresne – Zoe Papadaki (contralto)
Natalia – Elena Barcis (mezzo-soprano)
Totò – Daniela Campora (speaking role)
Courtois – Tino Nava (baritone)
Bussy – Duilio Contoli (baritone)
Augusto & Marco – Ernesto Sormani (tenor)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI Torino/Alfredo Silipigni
rec. live composite radio broadcast, 3,4,5 & 6 September 1969, Auditorium del Conservatorio Turin, Italy
Warner Fonit Cetra (87) AAD stereo
Compared with most of the Cetra catalogue, which consists of radio broadcasts from the early 50s in mono, this 1969 analogue stereo recording is very satisfactory: full and only mildly congested in ensembles. An array of excellent voices ins on show, headed by one of the best and most undeservedly neglected of spinto sopranos specialising in verismo, Clara Petrella, here in her mid-fifties but her voice exhibiting no signs of wear apart from slight loosening of her vibrato. She has a lovely sound with no hint of squawk or shriek; just rounded tone throughout its compass. I find her to be completely engaged with her role and singing with unfailing commitment, so here I differ from CH. I very much like her delivery of her renunciation aria at the end of Act III delivered against the background of the chid playing Cherubini’s Ave Maria on the piano.
Giuseppe Campora will be familiar to collectors as Adorno in the classic Simon Boccanegra starring Tito Gobbi and Victoria de los Ángeles; he had a powerful, slightly tremulous and over-vibrant tenor which was nonetheless attractive despite a certain harshness of tone; this Cetra issue was dedicated to him as an homage, as he died during its preparation. He makes a fine job of his big aria beginning Act III, temporarily making us forget that he is essentially a heel in the Pinkerton mode. Tito Turtura as Cascart has a neat, pleasing baritone and sings what is perhaps the best known aria, “Zazà, piccolo zingara” musically, even if he hasn’t much depth of timbre. Elinor Parker is suitably blowsy and characterful as the permanently tipsy mother.
This might be thought a somewhat brutal condensation of Leoncavallo’s score but it hangs together per se and I thoroughly enjoy it, not being the least troubled by its brevity – in fact at well over two hours, the original version might be considered to be overstretching the somewhat flimsy and simplistic plot. This set also acts as a memorial to two very fine singers well supported by a good cast and a conductor completely at ease with the verismo idiom, directing an orchestra expert in this repertoire, so is worth consideration at the very least as a supplement.
Maurizio Arena – 1978, live, Gala
Zazà – Lynne Strow (soprano)
Milio Dufresne – Luciano Saldari (tenor)
Cascart – Angelo Romero (baritone)
Mamma Anaide – Sylvana Mazzieri (mezzo-soprano)
Floriana – Mariella Adani (soprano)
Signora Dufresne – Maria Grazia Piolatto (contralto)
Natalia – Sofia Mezzetti (mezzo-soprano)
Totò – Guidi Rimonda (speaking role)
Courtois – Angelo Mosatti (baritone)
Bussy – Vinicio Cocchieri (tenor)
Augusto – Saverio Burzano (tenor)
Marco – Pietro Tarantino (tenor)
Claretta – Maria Grazia Piolatto (mezzo-soprano)
Malardot – Ermanno Lorenzi (tenor)
Lartigon – Vito Susca (bass)
Duclou – Giovanni Gaznerolli (baritone)
Michelin – Nino Carta (tenor)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI Torino/Maurizio Arena
rec. live 6 July 1978 (location not given)
Gala GL 100.731 [123 + 22 minutes bonus Germania excerpts]
As opposed to the Bongiovanni recording below, this performance uses Leoncavallo’s slightly cut 1919 version – supposedly his final thoughts – but it is still thirteen minutes shorter than the Opera Rara studio recording which uses the same edition. That might have been accounted for by the fact that this is a live radio broadcast and live performances tend to be pacier; certainly Arena’s direction is spirited and patently more urgent than Benini’s studio account for Opera Rara; however, although, the notes claim to present “most of the music from Leoncavallo’s original score” there are a few cuts; for example, the excision of Lartignon’s aria from Act I, but have not done a detailed comparison.
Surprisingly, the sound here is rather harsher, edgier and more distant than in the Cetra recording and some faint tape rustle and pre-echo are audible on headphones but it is perfectly acceptable for general listening purposes, if not for the audiophile. All the voices here are impressive or at least pleasant but do not come across quite as cleanly and clearly as for Cetra – and certainly not as well as for the two studio, digital recordings below. However, the ear soon adjusts, owing to the swing of proceedings and the intensity of the performers, especially that of Lynne Strow.
She has a warm, rich, seductive voice and makes particularly judicious use of portamento to enhance her appeal; she really was a lovely singer. Her opening exchange with Angelo Romero as Cascart goes well; he has a neat, pliant timbre somewhat reminiscent of Italian baritones of the Panerai school, with a fast vibrato and a free top. He sings “ Zazà, piccolo zingara” beautifully, its pathos aided by Altena’s relaxed, indulgent accompaniment. Strow’s voice has a special plangency and she can delve into her lower register to convey intensity, so the scene with her lover’s daughter is moving without courting excessive sentimentality. Silvana Mazzieri as Mamma Anaide doesn’t overdo the drunk routine; she is somewhat lighter of tone – less “fruity” – than other mezzos singing this role but she still has plenty of volume. The opening act in the music hall goes with a swing; I like the way conductor Maurizio Arena pushes the music along and the waltz numbers become reminiscent of Die Fledermaus. Tenor Luciano Saldari is occasionally a tad reedy but he has all the notes and suggests a certain rakishness without being repulsive (given that Milio turns out to be a bit of a rat). His duet with Zazà towards the end of Act I, “Signore entrate”, where he exerts his charm over her is highly involving, aided by Arena’s free, flexible, rubato-laden beat and the cascading harp arpeggios; that passage is a good example of how Leoncavallo’s music is so beguiling without being especially melodically memorable. He goes on to make a fine job of his big aria opening Act III.
Although the sound might not be the best, as long as you don’t mind the slightly shortened 1919 edition, the only major disadvantage to this Gala issue is that it has no libretto; otherwise, it is very attractive.
Silvano Frontalini – 2000, studio, Bongiovanni
Zazà – Lisa Houben (soprano)
Milio Dufresne – Sergio Panajia (tenor)
Cascart – Barry Anderson (baritone)
Mamma Anaide – Lucia Mastromarino (mezzo-soprano)
Floriana – Annalisa Scano (soprano)
Signora Dufresne – Gaia Hubbard (contralto)
Natalia – Susanna Branchini (mezzo-soprano)
Totò – Maria Debora Farina (speaking role)
Courtois – Valerio Marchetti (baritone)
Bussy – Domenico Balzani (baritone)
Augusto & Marco – Enrico Stinchelli (tenor)
Claretta – Susanna Branchini (mezzo-soprano)
Malardot – Daniele Giannini (tenor)
Lartigon – Valerio Marchetti (bass)
Duclou – Jean François Vinciguerra (baritone)
Michelin – Michelangelo Iachetti (tenor)
Orchestra & Coro Filarmonica di Roma/Silvano Frontalini
Bongiovanni GB 2289/90-2 
The sound here is sometimes spacious and vivid but also at times individual voices are very closely recorded which, unfortunately, highlights all the more clearly the deficiencies in some of the singing. Sergio Panajia in particular, is terrible – he has a squeezed, constricted tenor with a persistent nasal whine and is frequently unsteady. I find him intolerable. He is not alone in the naughty corner; to take some random examples, the singers portraying Courtois, Duclou, Lartigon, Malardot and Augusto are embarrassments; sample track 5 on the first CD for some horrible singing. Annalisa Scano’s Floriana is a strange, wispy thing, her low notes devoid of any resonance. Barry Anderson’s Cascart is adequate but he sounds old, subtlety is lacking and there is a throaty, gargling element to his voice which I do not find appealing alongside truly Italianate stylists. The Natalia singing Natalia is wobbly. Frontalini’s conducting is heavy-handed and deliberate in manner; he does not phrase the music anywhere near as caressingly as the other three conductors.
It is by no means all bad. The production is very immediate and lively, if lacking subtlety. The choir in the opening Act III is excellent. Lucia Mastromarino characterises Mamma Anaide’s grotesquely accompanied music strongly in full voice. Domenico Balzani’s Bussy is pleasant. However, Lisa Houben’s Zazà is by far the best thing here, which is just as well, as this is a vehicle for a star soprano. She has an ample, slightly blowsy soprano, and comes across as a big personality; I find her more alluring than Ermonela Jaho. Her scene with Totò is nicely done but she is distantly recorded whereas the microphone appears to be centimetres away from the girl speaking. Houben’s best may be heard in her aria “Mamma! Io non l’ho avuta mai” through to the end of the Act; her voice is full, strong and suffused with passion.
The deficiencies are a pity given the claims of the recording.
Maurizio Benini – 2015, studio, Opera Rara
Zazà – Ermonela Jaho (soprano)
Milio Dufresne – Riccardo Massi (tenor)
Cascart – Stephen Gaertner (baritone)
Mamma Anaide – Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
Bussy – David Stout (baritone)
Courtois – Nicky Spence (tenor)
Natalia – Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Duclou – Simon Thorpe (baritone)
Floriana Fflur Wyn (soprano)
Totò – Julia Ferri (speaking role)
BBC Singers & Symphony Orchestra/Maurizio Benini
rec. November 2015, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
Opera Rara ORC55 
This was Opera Rara’s first venture into the verismo repertoire and is beautifully recorded in the best digital sound. The opening scene can be quite hard to follow, there is such a profusion of characters involved, but the engineers help by acoustically differentiating between the on and off-stage action. You will immediately note the excellence not only of the sound but also the conducting and orchestral playing here.
I differ, however from some previous commentators with regard to my response to the leading voices here: I do not find them to be uniformly elegant or beautiful of tone: Ermonela Jaho is a sensitive artist but has something of an edge or acidity in her tone, especially as the voice goes up – the result of an under-developed lower register – and she is never especially individual or touching compared with Strow, Houben or even the strong-voiced Petrella; I remarked on this lack of “face” in her portrayal of Liù in the recent Turandot and one thing Zazà cannot be is anonymous. She resorts to a breathy half-voice for much of her conversation with Totò and Julia Ferri in that role sounds rather pallid and too old compared with the other recordings. Stephen Gaertner’s Cascart is passable but still lumpy and coarse of timbre, unvarying of expression and with too pronounced a vibrato compared with, for example, Angelo Romero for Arena; in his big aria he could be addressing a public meeting compared with the pathos Tito Gobbi finds in it. David Stout’s Bussy is more attractive. Patricia Bardon characterises Mamma vividly but her tone is now impure, catchy and scratchy, so it is just as well that she is playing a raddled old drunk. Finally, Riccardo Messi’s weak, husky tenor with a bleating top and little pharyngeal ring is no match for Campora or Saldari.
In short, the singing here is generally bland and underpowered and I am not greatly impressed.
As the four recordings discussed here cover all three incarnations of Zazà, the completist can indulge himself or herself in all of them, but if just one recording is desired, the choice becomes complicated.
The heavily abridged Cetra recording is for me that oxymoronic item, “an essential supplement”, both for the excellence of the singing and for the chance to hear this opera in its most pithy and concentrated form – albeit never as the composer envisaged it. The live Gala performance and the Opera Rara studio recording both offer Leoncavallo’s 1919 revision; for his original thoughts, the only choice is Bongiovanni.
I know that the more surveys I complete, the more often – to employ an apt but outdated simile – I sound like a broken record, but the standard of singing in the two recent digital performances is generally nowhere near as good on the two older recordings, so by a process of reduction my preference has to be for the live Gala, despite its indifferent analogue sound and its lack of libretto. I find Lynn Strow at al to be much easier on the ear and more involving than their successors. If you must have a digital recording, on balance, it has to be the Opera Rara set, but Houben’s Zazà for Bongiovanni is much more involving and more beautifully sung; if only her tenor partner were better.