Zingari, Opera Rara, review: a rare and commendable performance of Leoncavallo's creaky drama

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Carlo Rizzi & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Italian opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote his one famous hit, I Pagliacci, at the very start of his career in 1892, and then had the misfortune to make a setting of La Bohème at exactly the same time as Puccini’s much more successful version. That setback did not stop him turning to lighter operettas, until in 1912 he was asked for an opera by the London Hippodrome (now the casino that stands on the Charing Cross Road by Leicester Square but then a prestigious home for music and dance) and went back to his melodramatic style in his short opera Zingari.

All credit to Opera Rara, now with Carlo Rizzi as artistic director, who have done so much for the neglected operas of the period, for giving us a well-performed chance to reassess the piece, but I cannot see the faintest possibility of any company rushing to stage this creaky drama today. Its setting in a gypsy camp produces obvious echoes of Bizet’s Carmen, but its origin in a sophisticated Pushkin text links it more closely to Rachmaninov’s far-superior Aleko, and the brutal love triangle of the plot reminded me more forcefully of Puccini’s slightly later Il tabarro.

We are here in the tortured world of operatic verismo, where the passionate Fleana (rhapsodically sung by Krassimira Stoyanova) is torn between the aristocratic Radu (Arsen Soghamonyan, magnificently declaimed) and the more exotic Tamar (Stephen Gaertner, stepping in very solidly for Carlos Alvarez), while a wise old man (Lukasz Goliński) hovers on the sidelines. There are some effective off-stage moments featuring a viola solo (Abigail Fenna), a strong Intermezzo, and several colourful choruses, but the heart of the piece is the love conflict between the three protagonists.

The first part culminates in a passionate and effective duet between Radu and Fleana. By the second part, her affections have shifted, yet her bitter argument with Radu is better characterised than her subsequent love scene with Tamar. The denouement is grotesque: as Fleana and Tamar rush into a nearby hut, Radu sets it alight and the two burn to death in a tastelessly prolonged scene. Leoncavallo was unsurprisingly unsure about how to end the piece after this, and this performance dubiously restored the original 1912 ending in which Radu does not kill himself but is released as a madman.

The soloists projected strongly, but were unhelpfully placed at an angle behind the orchestra. Good playing from the Royal Philharmonic under Rizzi, who had earlier premiered a Symphonic Suite he had devised during lockdown from Puccini’s Tosca, which I am afraid only served to remind us how superior in every turn of phrase is Puccini’s musical imagination.

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