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Written for performance at the London Hippodrome in 1912, Leoncavallo’s Zingari (“Gypsies”) was hugely successful in its day, and second in popularity only to Pagliacci among his operas in his lifetime, although like so many of his scores, revivals became sporadic after his death in 1919. Opera Rara, however, who have done so much to champion Leoncavallo’s work of late, chose it to mark their return to live music after lockdown with a terrific concert performance conducted by Carlo Rizzi, with an outstanding cast.
The work itself is extraordinarily effective, if by no means a masterpiece. Based on Pushkin’s 1824 poem The Gypsies, it deals with Radu, a disaffected aristocrat who joins a band of Gypsies after falling in love with the independent-spirited Fleana, the daughter of the Old Man who is their leader. Love turns to murderous obsession, however, when she becomes attracted to the Gypsy Tamar, who has always adored her. The similarities with Carmen are not coincidental: Prosper Mérimée, on whose novel Bizet’s masterpiece is based, was also Pushkin’s first French translator.
Leoncavallo’s score is occasionally hampered by his indiscriminate use of generic Eastern European and Orientalist tropes for his Gypsies: a polonaise, mazurka and czárdás, and chromatic or modal melismas in some of Fleana’s vocal lines. But the love duets are fiercely sensual, and the way Leoncavallo probes the escalating tensions of the central emotional triangle has you hooked by the end.
It’s hard to imagine it better done, either. Arsen Soghomonyan was the dark-voiced, passionate Radu, slowly losing control when faced with Krassimira Stoyanova’s imperious, self-determined Fleana, gloriously sung. Stephen Gaertner, handsome sounding as Tamar, did wonders with his seductive serenade – a hit number in 1912 – while Łukasz Goliński was the stoical, knowing Old Man, unfazed by the murkiness of human nature. Rizzi conducted with formidable intensity, and the playing (the Royal Philharmonic) and choral singing (the Opera Rara Chorus) were both first rate. The performance was preceded by Rizzi’s own arrangement of an orchestral digest from Puccini’s Tosca, finely done, though it fails to capture the power of the original. Zingari, however, will linger in the memory as a superb achievement.
• This article was amended on 5 December 2021 to correct the subheading. An earlier version had the composer of Zingari as Pagliacci (the composer’s most famous opera) instead of Leoncavallo.