MY STORY Blood and wonder of the gipsy opera

Carlo Rizzi, artistic director, Opera Rara

Opera Rara, the company that rediscovers, restores, records and performs lost operatic masterpieces, is reviving Ruggero Leoncavallo’s second most popular opera (after Pagliacci), Zingari, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in December. It will be conducted by Carlo Rizzi, the former music director of Welsh National Opera and Opera Rara’s artistic director since 2019.

Zingari, based on a Pushkin poem, was commissioned by and first performed at the Hippodrome in London in 1912, conducted by the composer, and had considerable success, but then sank into obscurity. Why did you choose this tragic and violent gipsy love story to revive?

When choosing any opera, I take into account both music and drama rather than just the storyline. In the case of Zingari, I found the music so beautiful, interesting and exciting, and it just so happened that the story told was the one you described in your question - one that is true to the tradition of verismo (realism, which became a post-romantic movement in Italian literature and music around 1900) with lots of strong emotions, both dramatically and musically.


How did it come to have its world premiere at The Hippodrome, and did you consider reviving it there (it is a casino now but its stage has survived)?, and what happened to the opera after its premiere, and why has it been so rarely performed after its initial success?

Leoncavallo enjoyed great success when he conducted Pagliacci – a typical verismo opera characterized by big strokes of emotion – at the Hippodrome in 1911. After a period of composing lighter repertoire including operettas, he decided to return to verismo by which point he had been invited by the impresario of the Hippodrome to write an opera            especially for the venue to be performed alongside lighter entertainment acts which the Hippodrome was already well-known for.

And no, because of logistical complications, we didn’t actually consider reviving Zingari there though it would have been nice if we could have, as the original stage, as you say, still exists.

In terms of what happened to the opera after its premiere... at the time of its premiere in 1912 there was a huge appetite for opera and so in the end, other works ended up entering the current repertory whilst Zingari didn’t, but just because it was superseded by other works is absolutely not a reflection on its quality, in my view. In fact, to date, Zingari is Leoncavallo’s second most performed opera after Pagliacci. Moreover, verismo as a style went out of fashion as new kinds of music entered the scene. And of course, you also need three very strong singers to perform this work – so all these factors contributed to Zingari falling a little by the wayside.


How did the original score come to light and how has it been restored?

At Opera Rara, one thing we always try and do is return to the original source of an opera. In the case of Zingari, this was difficult because the original score does not survive and only a later version which was used for the very sparse recordings which exist. However, what we did find was the original vocal score of the first version of the opera which was published immediately after the premiere in 1912. And interestingly, the reduced piano part from the original orchestral parts was ‘reduzione dell’ autore”, so by Leoncavallo himself. So, if Leoncavallo was the author of this vocal score, we reckoned this was a very credible source for the           earlier version of the opera. Then, Ditlev Rindom, one of our partner musicologists at Opera Rara, having scouted around online in various digital libraries around the world, found a manuscript of the opera which we believe is written in Leoncavallo’s own hands. So, this also helped us greatly in working out what exactly the first version of Zingari looked like as originally conceived by the composer himself.

Without the original score, we’ve had to re-orchestrate certain passages which has revealed differences between the first version of the opera and the later version I mentioned before. However, because the passages are not long and we’ve been able to base some of them on similar passages from other sections of the opera, it hasn’t been as     complicated a work of musical archaeology compared to previous Opera Rara projects.


How good is it, how does it compare with Pagliacci?

For me, looking at the orchestral writing alone for a moment, it is more accomplished than Pagliacci and evidently one can put this down to Zingari being composed quite a few years after Pagliacci, so Leoncavallo had much more experience writing for orchestra. In terms of overall musical quality, I think there are some wonderful themes and wonderful moments. And interestingly, I think Leoncavallo thought back to Pagliacci a lot when writing Zingari because there are a lot of structural similarities. For example, both operas   are divided into two “quadri”, so not acts but two parts of the same act divided by an intermezzo. In both operas the chorus plays a similar role at the beginning to set the tone of the drama and social environment in which the action will be played out in front of us. There is also a similar love triangle which follows the line of the soprano falling for two different people: the tenor in the first part of the opera but then deciding she’s made a mistake goes off with the baritone, after which point the tenor exacts his revenge on the soprano and baritone. In Pagliacci, they are killed by the tenor with a knife... and in Zingari, the hut in which they are in is set alight by the baritone. In terms of the two different endings of Zingari, the later version sees Radu, the tenor, commit suicide; whereas in the original, he escapes.


After its first performances the composer cut the opera down, but this is the full-length restoration. How long is it now and how much longer than the edited version?

No not much longer – about eight minutes. It’s still a very compact opera of around in one hour in length even in this longer original version. And to be honest, what’s most interesting between the two versions is not about how much music has been rediscovered but the differences in the internal dynamics between the three roles.


Are there other rediscovered Leoncavallo pieces waiting in the wings?

Well, we are definitely looking into a broad spectrum of works by Leoncavallo, composers of the verismo period, not only in Italian but also from different countries. The most important thing for Opera Rara is to find the best pieces which we think deserve to be rediscovered. So Leoncavallo is definitely on our radar but he is not the only one.


The performance on December 3 will be preceded by your own arrangement of a symphonic suite after Puccini’s Tosca. Can we expect more of your own work linked with an opera in future?

Over the last year, I worked on two symphonic suites in fact: Tosca which will be heard on 3 December and for MadamaButterfly, both based 100% on Puccini’s own orchestral writing. In my opinion, Puccini was a great writer for orchestra, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight these orchestral parts he wrote in these two operas. Of course, opera is about singing but what I wanted to show is how Italian opera is not only about the vocal lines and nothing else, and in the specific case of Puccini, what fantastic music he wrote for the orchestra. So, I’ve done Tosca, I’ve done Butterfly, and I don’t know if any will follow but I started with these two because they are two operas very dear to my heart and which I believe really reflect the richness and inventiveness of Puccini’s symphonic writing and his abilities as an orchestrator.


You took over from Sir Mark Elder two years ago. How easy has it been to step into his shoes, and is this your first revival for the company?

Sir Mark Elder is a fantastic conductor and did incredible work with Opera Rara. But of course, every conductor will have a different take on what the role is to be artistic director of the company but I think it’s not just about stepping into Mark’s shoes but also continuing the tradition of being passionate about rediscovering operas to present to the modern public, giving them a broader taste of what musical life was like in the past. So, this love for the work of Opera Rara is definitely what connects me and Mark, and in turn will connect me to whoever takes over from me, and also whoever came before Mark.

In answer to your second question, although I became artistic director of Opera Rara in August 2019, because of the pandemic, two projects had to be cancelled so this will be the first time as artistic director that I will lead on an Opera Rara project. I did however work with the company back in 2017 on two recital recordings Écho and Espoir with Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.


What other plans do you have for Opera Rara – is there another revival already on the horizon?

Unlike a “normal” performing arts company who plan two to three years in advance, at Opera Rara, we need to plan much further ahead, not only to book in the best singers but also because the process of finding new operas, thinking whether they’re worth bringing back to life or not, transcribing modern editions, scores and orchestral parts of those we think are worth focusing on, comparing different sources etc. is very lengthy. So what we’re looking at are titles to work on over the next five years or so. Obviously things may change, things may get fine-tuned but our most immediate plans are Mercadante’s Il Proscritto and Offenbach’s La princesse de Trébizonde, both of which we will record and perform next year. There are other plans in the pipeline but we’re also looking back at projects which had to be cancelled during the pandemic and rearranging things so we   can fit these back in.

The link to the concert is


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