Ruggiero Leoncavallo: Gli Zingari (1912)

Opera in due atti con intermezzo. Running Time: 59 minutes.

Everyone, even those who never listen to opera, has heard I Pagliacci, some opera buffs know about the Leoncavallo Boheme, and there is even the rare Domingo fan who knows of the existence of I Medici, but almost no one knows that during a two year span, 1912-1913, this hour long work ended up totalling so many performances that it is actually still the second most performed Leoncavallo opera ever. The creator of the tenor role, Egidio Cunego, participated in around 600 performances of the opera over the course of a single season in London (sometimes twice a day). It was also successful in the United States during the same season. Since then, it has obviously vanished (apart from a production in Bergamo in 1916) and a few sporadic performances and at least four recordings (all of live performances in 1963, 1975 (this review, RAI), 1999, and as recently as May 2020 in Moscow on a double-bill with Aleko). The libretto was by the composer and has some similarities of plot to Pagliacci (a married soprano carrying on with a baritone before both are killed by her husband, a tenor), although the settings could not be more different without going outside of Europe. One thing about this opera which will become almost immediately apparent is that it is a tenor-star vehicle. The soprano is a dramatic and musical ornament (and could almost have been a mezzo, cost cutting Ruggiero!), the other two men merely provide plot forwarding, and the chorus and orchestra are attractive accessories. The orchestral score consists of some 310 pages, of which the first act alone is 174. The intermezzo is 15 pages.

Also, did anyone notice that this is the first Leoncavallo opera that I have ever reviewed? I have heard five of his operas already and it took FIVE years on this blog for me to finally get a review of one of them out! Ironically, this is also his shortest opera.

SETTING: A gypsy encampment on the Danube, (Romania?) 1880s. Fleana, Queen of the Gypsies (soprano, what else?) is caught by her people with the Wallachian (?) nobleman Radu (tenor). He promises to join the band if he can marry Fleana, and this is accepted by all except Tamar (baritone) who is himself in love with Fleana and rebukes her before her wedding ceremony. In the second act, a year later, Fleana has cooled to Radu and decides to cheat with Tamar, who is still in love with her. Radu locks them up in their trysting place and burns them alive. There is only one other soloist, Il Vecchio (baritone) the leader of the Gypsies.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A gypsy encampment on the Danube. (31 minutes)

0: The opening martial Polonaise *** and chorus, not remotely Romani, or even Romanian or Hungarian, but a good opener (it holds out through the first three minutes of the work). Then we have a recitative between Tamar and Il Vecchio which sets up the plot to an accompaniment of woodwinds and strings.

4: Taci, nol dir! Tamar emotes about Fleana in a brief aria ** before the furious chorus of gypsies comes on with Fleana and Radu after they have been caught.

7: Disciogliete la prima Fleana tries to justify herself * in a brief solo which is too brief to be called a formal aria.

9: Principe Radu io son Radu introduces himself to Il Vecchio in a florid 19th-century style tenor aria ***. Leoncavallo pulls out all the stops for this one. He offers to join the gypsies to marry Fleana, this is accepted by Il Vecchio.

12: Zingari! Le mie nozze Fleana orders for wedding festivities (to the Polonaise from earlier) **.

13: Eccolo finalmente il sogno The love duet Radu-Fleana starts off almost as an aria for tenor ***, with a brilliant second movement dominated by the tenor until a section for Fleana where she has four sustained high A naturals. Female chorus pops in in the background, before we return to the duet for a third go (this time more duet than Wagnerian take-turns, with the chorus popping in again).

21: Addormentarmi Tamar comes on to confront Fleana before she marries Radu. This is followed by a somewhat iconic adoration scene for Radu as Fleana holds him to her breast *.

24: Di sciogli balenanti The pre-wedding celebrations climax on a comparatively minor song and dance for the chorus * before Radu takes his vows and Fleana embarks on some Romani-style coloratura (if such a thing exists) in a party piece song about eternal love.

28: Sia benedetto il frutto del tuo amor Act finale *** The wedding blessing from Il Vecchio is interrupted by the love song of Tamar. The act ends with a mini-love duet for Radu and Fleana (a repeat of their earlier tune) as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: An encampment near an abandoned church. (28 minutes)

0: The intermezzo ** is in the same vein of Eastern European music as the opening of act one, although it has logically adjusted south into more Hungarian-sounding work. It eventually gives way to some more Wagnerian sounding work, interestingly still retaining Italianate traces.

4, 7: Presto! Presto!/Fleana! An all-male introductory chorus * gives way to a scene between Fleana and Tamar. Some distinctly Hungarian flute solo work transitions us to the unhappy domestic situation of the protagonists as Radu comes on **. A cor anglaise joins the flute in the Magyarization as Radu realizes that all is lost, Fleana no longer loves him. 10: No! Qualcuno! Radu gives one last grand impassioned plea *** but she laughs in his face and goes into a sardonic gypsy melody to mock him. Her second go at this is better than the first. He begs her to love him, but no, she will have none of it.

16: Perduto tutti! Radu reflects in one of those brilliantly pensive tenor sequences ***. It is so heartrending.

19, 24: Canto notturno/Sono il Togo A solo violin takes over in the background giving some Gypsy-realness (apparently Tamar is playing) as he comes on *. He convinces Fleana to go with him into the abandoned church to have intimate relations ** in a duet which ends rather rapturously.

25: Fleana! Ove sei? The finale ***: Radu wakes up, realizes where Fleana has gone and that she is with Tamar, locks them in the church, and sets it on fire. Fleana and Tamar scream as the gypsies curse Radu for killing them and demand he leave.

COMMENTS:

This opera has everything one could want, in miniature. Grand orchestral tunes, a brilliant tenor lead, and an immolated soprano. It does make one wonder if the success of the work was due to its score, the initial performances by the soloists, or just the wildly anticipated desire by audiences to see a soprano burned to death for adultery. What does it say about the psyche of most opera librettists (usually presumably heterosexual males) who come up with rather bizarre ways to kill off female characters. Is it revenge on their mothers for being born? I mean, the worst thing Tchaikovsky put his heroines through were drowning, poisoning, being raped by Ivan the Terrible, and immolation for witchcraft…oh wait… maybe it is just a guy thing. Sorry ladies, I thought we had a gay ally who wasn’t Ethel Smyth!

Anyway, even a brief look at this score confirms its initial success, it is a fun score: the role of Radu in particular is a great vehicle part for a leading tenor. It is also short, but not in the 90 minute hard to fit on CD sort of way. The orchestration is sparkling, and Leoncavallo knows how to use Polish and Hungarian melodies effectively, while at the same time impregnanting the dramatic scenes with Italian passion. Fleana is not so sympathetic, actually she falls in with Anna in Le Villi as one of those jerk-off soprano roles who has no time for my boys, and gets offed for it. However, since she gets burned to death by the tenor, and our sympathy is with him, can she be anything other than a witch? Leoncavallo captures this with music which is comparatively bloodless, even when she sings about eternal love. It deliberately sounds hollow, which given the circumstances is rather brilliant. Tamar gets some good vocal work, including a few high passages. The chorus work is also delightful to listen to, but it is ultimately the orchestra which really brings out much of the dramatic effects and provides the most solid entertainment. An alpha.

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