Forget the slightly-too-clever plot devices of Tosca or La fanciulla del West. If you are looking for Verismo with a capital V, look no further than Opera Holland Park’s new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà – a tale of adultery populated by characters who are flesh and blood and are immediately recognisable today: the girl made good from the wrong side of the tracks, dreaming of respectable married bliss, the adulterous man who deceives her, the alcoholic mother who depends on her.

Johane Ansell (Floriana), Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà), James Cleverton (Bussy) and chorus © Robert Workman
Johane Ansell (Floriana), Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà), James Cleverton (Bussy) and chorus
© Robert Workman
Act 1 of Zazà is pleasant enough – a cheerful picture of backstage shenanigans in a French provincial theatre, with flirtations, jealousies and general thespian mayhem. It’s beautifully set by director Marie Lambert: she and designer Alyson Cummins perform miracles to create stage, wings, dressing rooms and a dance rehearsal space, all within a single set on the Holland Park stage; Camille Assaf’s fin de siècle costumes are meticulously executed; stage movement is nicely handled. But Act 1 doesn’t give much of a hint of how rapidly events will go pear-shaped in the second half of the opera, and of the intensity of the portrayals that are to come.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà), Joel Montero (Milio) © Robert Workman
Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà), Joel Montero (Milio)
© Robert Workman

You begin to realise that things are going awry in Act 2. Our eponymous showgirl heroine, so vivacious and thick-skinned in Act 1, has turned a dalliance with the handsome Milio into a full-blooded affair, but it becomes clear through the course of the act that he is living a double life and intends to desert her (clear, that is, to everyone except Zazà herself). After the interval follow two acts of searing intensity. First, Zazà travels to Paris to discover the truth about Milio, which turns out to be unpalatable: he has a wife and an angelic daughter. If Zazà succeeds in wresting Milio from his wife, she will be condemning that daughter to the fate of her own childhood: an absent father and the probable result of an alcoholic and depressed mother. The finale is a blazing row between Zazà and Milio which shows both our principals, Anne Sophie Duprels and Joel Montero, at their finest: as they go through the emotional wringer of fury and spurned passion, they’re completely convincing and vocally strong. All this in spite of some trying conditions, in the shape of a thunderstorm of biblical proportions hammering down on the Holland Park tent. The singers, conductor Peter Robinson, the City of London Sinfonia continued bravely: the show must go on.

To a 21st-century audience, part of what impresses is the radicalism: Leoncavallo, who wrote his own libretto, is exploring questions of sexual hypocrisy, deprived childhood and the treatment of women in a way that was decidedly challenging the norms of 1900 Italian society, and doing so with text that rings true in a way that would surely make his audience uncomfortable.

Aida Ippolito (Totó), Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà) © Robert Workman
Aida Ippolito (Totó), Anne Sophie Duprels (Zazà)
© Robert Workman

Duprels is an excellent singing actress, which showed especially in the “woman spurned” part of the role: she didn’t convince me as much when playing the carefree diva of Act I. Her voice was solid and persuasive in the louder passages, but she struggled to project pianissimi, sometimes falling below the threshold of audibility above the orchestra. Also a credible actor, Montero had the desired openness of voice for the part of Milio; there was some tightness and a sense of reaching for some of the notes, which I hope will disappear as the run progresses.

The supporting cast was strong: the outstanding warmth of Richard Burkhard’s baritone and the ease with which he shaped his lines made him an ideal fit for Zazà’s ex-lover Cascart; Louise Winter swayed entertainingly through the part of Zazà’s mother Anaide; James Cleverton was watchable and sonorous as the theatre’s writer-in-residence Bussy. Aida Ippolito was suitably charming in the spoken role of Milio's daughter Totó.

Richard Burkhard (Cascart), Louise Winter (Anaide) © Robert Workman
Richard Burkhard (Cascart), Louise Winter (Anaide)
© Robert Workman

Leoncavallo’s score is opulent, rich and melodious throughout, and Robinson conducts it with plenty of accent and a fair degree of precision. The key difference, though, between Leoncavallo and Puccini lies in how memorable it is: enjoyably melodic as Zazà may be, it’s the second time I’ve heard the opera and there isn’t a single tune that stuck in my head on the way home last night. It’s Puccini’s gift for earworms, I think, which explains his overwhelming popularity compared to his contemporaries, while “Vesti la giubba” explains why Pagliacci is the Leoncavallo opera that everyone remembers.

But if you want an opera that contains a true “slice of life” as we still recognise it, to the accompaniment of ravishing Italian music, the excellence of Lambert’s staging and the compelling acting of its principals make this production a must-see.

****1