Ruggero Leoncavallo is one of Italian opera’s one-hit wonders. Or perhaps not even that since ‘Pagliacci’ only holds its place in the repertory today as one half of the evergreen “Cav & Pag” double bill alongside Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’. His very pleasant ‘La Boheme’ has been outshone and relegated to obscurity by Puccini’s melodic juggernaut. It wasn’t always like this. Leoncavallo’s ‘Zazà’ was once so popular that headlining American diva Geraldine Farrar – mistress of Arturo Toscanini – chose it for her farewell performance at the New York Met in 1922. His later verismo opera ‘Zingari’ was a big success when it came to London in 1912, conducted by the composer, for a long run at the Hippodrome theatre. The wonderfully enterprising label Opera Rare has now given us the chance to hear what we have been missing with both operas recorded in studio conditions after acclaimed concert performances.

Zazà’: Jaho, Massi, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Maurizio Benini (2 CDs) ★★★★★ The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho gives a sensational performance in the title role – no wonder Farrar wanted it for her farewell. Zazà is a warm-hearted, passionate singer in the French music hall who falls for businessman Milio Dufresne – suave sounding Italian tenor Riccardo Massi – but nobly gives him up when she discovers that he’s married with a young daughter. It’s a combination of ‘Tosca’ (without the deaths) and a convincing behind-the-scenes look at showbiz life that became the staple of Hollywood movies. No arias as memorable as ‘Vesti la giubba’ but a fine cast, Benini’s idiomatic conducting and Jaho’s Callas-like conviction make for a very satisfying listen.

Zingari’: Stoyanova, Soghomonyan, Opera Rara Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlo Rizzi ★★★★ is a shorter and slighter work than ‘Zazà’. Leoncavallo designated it as a “dramma lirico in two episodes” separated by an intermezzo, forming a single act and with just four characters – the Roma of the title – including a familiar love-triangle. Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is the sexy, seductive Fleana who puts Radu (tenor Arsen Soghomonyan) under her spell and then abandons him for the gypsy poet Tamar (baritone Stephen Gaertner). Being Italian verismo it all ends in tears (and murder). This version has Rizzi conducting the original vocal score plus Martin Fitzpatrick’s restorations of orchestral passages omitted from the original. Full-blooded performances and super work from Rizzi and RPO still don’t convince me that it’s an undiscovered ‘Pagliacci’. Both sets have Italian essays and libretti plus English translations.

Norman Stinchcombe

Stravinsky: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Davis (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★★★

This is a finely played, vividly recorded and top value (83+ minutes) disc. The two major works here are Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1940) and the Symphony in Three Movements (1946). Sir Andrew Davis adopts tempi slower than Solti’s 1990s Chicago recordings: he never impedes the music’s flow, but some listeners will prefer a slightly more glittering, harder-edged musical profile. The BBC players are splendid, with important contributions from Ian Buckle (piano) and Clifford Lantaff (harp) in the latter work. Stravinsky could be very charming when the music demanded as in the ‘Divertimento’ which he took from his Tchaikovsky pastiche ballet score ‘Le Baiser de la fée’ (The Fairy’s Kiss) – haute cuisine musical blancmange with a tart aftertaste. Two miniatures, ‘Greeting Prelude’ a minute-long “musical telegram” for conductor Pierre Monteux’s eightieth birthday and the bizarre and funny galumphing ‘Circus Polka’ – a small ballet for big performers (fifty elephants!) – are enjoyable additions.

Norman Stinchcombe

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