After their Mascagni debut last year, with L’amico Fritz (the composer’s first post-Cavalleria opera), Opera Holland Park have set out to uncover more music from the so-called ‘one-hit-wonder’ – still known to most for his smash verismo opera alone. This year, the opera company brings to London audiences an even more rarely performed work by the Tuscan-born musician: the one-act opera Zanetto, in a double bill with Puccini’s much more popular musical comedy, Gianni Schicchi. Links between these two operatic miniatures no doubt exist, and indeed are brought to the fore in the present productions. And yet, what makes this pairing especially interesting is, in fact, the contrasts in character between the two pieces.

First performed to great acclaim in Rossini’s hometown of Pesaro on 2 March 1896 under the baton of Mascagni himself, Zanetto is based on an Italian translation of a French play (Le Passant) by François Coppée, adapted into a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. Although the opera fared quite badly at La Scala a few weeks later – unsuited, as it is, to such a massive hall – it travelled to various smaller Italian venues the following year. London first saw it in a private performance by the Ravogli sisters in its debut year.

The plot is definitely thin (the whole work lasts barely forty minutes). Sylvia, a wealthy but unhappy courtesan in Renaissance Florence, intrigued by an encounter with a wandering minstrel, Zanetto, realises she might have found true love. But in order not to compromise the youth’s purity – he’s in search of a beautiful (and very idealised) lady named Sylvia, little knowing he’s already met her – she decides to dismiss him, and plunges back into her sorrow. This production, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, emphasises the weariness of the courtesan’s existence, which is reflected in the decaying look of the hotel where she lives. The tailor’s dummy and the tall mirror set in the middle of the grey back wall signify the sheer emptiness and tedium of her life. It is no coincidence that, at the end, after she has sunk back into her solitude, an image of Sylvia appears out of that same mirror, staring at her: the mirror now a transparent sheet of glass, behind which the woman’s double is trapped, a prisoner of boredom. Sylvia’s sense of apathy was very well conveyed on 22 June by soprano Janice Watson, in spite of her not always clear and audible Italian. Young mezzo Patricia Orr excelled in the title role, adding, on several occasions, a touch of dramatic verve that was otherwise lacking from the overall musical performance.

Puccini’s Dante-inspired comedy centring around the Donati family, living in 1299 Florence, stood out as far more lively in the musical rendition by the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Manlio Benzi. True, Puccini’s ceaseless rhythmic invention and the presence of considerable action onstage helped more than a little in this regard. Still, one would have hoped for something more to be made of Mascagni’s score too – by emphasising more boldly, for instance, the emotional climaxes or the changes in rhythm and tempo. Schicchi, however, did counterbalance the slightly wishy-washy first half of the evening. Not only did Lloyd-Evans’s direction revitalise, through various details, this very well known operatic gem (the scene where the doctor arrives and Schicchi pretends to be Buoso, talking and moving his corpse like a puppet was but one of a list of brainwaves), the musical performance was also more exciting. The whole cast provided excellent singing throughout, the various characters also interacting with pleasing complicity. In particular, Alan Opie was a very funny, gangster-like Schicchi, while Anna Patalong (Lauretta) interpreted her famous aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ with a touching and beautiful legato. Her dream to exchange love freely with Rinuccio, sung by Jung Soo Yun, was finally achieved when the back wall split, revealing the final scene of the opera: the two lovers appeared, serene, on the balcony, the view of Florence flooding in at last (at least in our imagination) at the close of this Florentine-themed musical night.