MASCAGNI: Zanetto (complete opera); L’amico Fritz (Intermezzo); Cavalleria rusticana (Intermezzo) – Eilana Lappalainen (Sylvia)/ Jennifer Larmore (Zanetto)/ Academic Choir Zerotin/ Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic/ Peter Tiboris, conductor – Elysium GRG 727, 50:20 ***1/2 [Distr. by Qualiton]:
Pietro Mascagni wrote two one-act operas: Cavalleria rusticana and Zanetto. We know that he conducted the two together in 1902 at the old Metropolitan Opera House, but this recording, following after the 2007 performances at Carnegie Hall (the first in New York since 1902), is only the third available. I have not heard the other two, but I have a great deal of trouble imaging the title role sung better than Larmore does here.
The work is only about 40 minutes long, and the plot, taken from a French play The Passer-by – once a signature role of the great Sarah Bernhardt – has been sunnified and lightened up in an Italian style. It involves a lonely, aging courtesan (Sylvia) who has nonetheless obtained some fame and notoriety because of her great charm and beauty, lamenting the fact that true love has perhaps passed her by. Enter Zanetto, a young singer (played in a trouser role by Jennifer Larmore) who is coming into Florence (in a renaissance-era setting), perhaps the answer to the dream that Sylvia has had of a young Florentine. He arrives and falls asleep, whereupon Sylva spots him and begins a dialog with him. Zanetto speaks of the famous courtesan Sylvia, though she never does reveal to him that she is indeed the one he is speaking of. Ultimately, moved by the young man and flattered over his desire to meet this famous woman, Sylvia disparages herself to him, suggesting for various reasons that he should avoid meeting this fallen woman at all costs. The boy takes her meaning, and says that he will have no intention of seeking her out, and moves on. Sylvia, happy that she is still capable of feeling pure and true love, breaks into tears at the thought of real love lost.
The composer opens the work with a masterly stroke, a wordless chorus of great beauty, and indeed the whole opera is a lyrical gem, full of wonderful moments, surely worthy of a listen by any dedicated opera fan. Larmore is superb–hard to believe she is now 50, but the voice betrays no weaknesses. I have a few more issues with the singing of up and coming Eilana Lappalainen. She has good dramatic instincts, but her voice wobbles a great deal in the highest register and it can become irritating. If she can get control of this she will have quite an arsenal of tools in her vocal career, for she knows how to shape a phrase and caress the meaning of a word. But compared with Larmore on this same recording you can tell what is missing. Nevertheless, one has great hopes for her.
The orchestra does not have the most suave sound I have ever heard, but acquit themselves well for this rather close up recording. The two Intermezzi do show some weaknesses in the strings however. A libretto with English translation is included, and overall this is recommended for its rarity, its beauty, and Larmore’s singing.
— Steven Ritter