What first struck me about the UNITEL CD of the Theater an der Wien 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s lyric comedy Zazà is how very contemporary in spirit this neglected 1900 gem is.

Written just a few years after Pagliacci and preceding by decades the composer’s other equally neglected operas and operettas, this story of an ill-fated vaudeville performer is blunt, true to life, and deserving of a place in the repertory of those opera companies in search of vehicles for three first-rank leading singers who can look the part, sing Leoncavallo’s demanding music, and act with conviction.

Like Pagliacci – another opera about performers – the story of Zazà deals with the music hall star of the same name who becomes entangled in a passionate love affair with the married businessman Milio Dufresne. The fellow performer Cascart is infatuated with Zazà, but his feelings are not reciprocated by her.

The Unitel DVD features a cast of twenty-two gifted singing actors, led by the superb soprano Svetlana Aksenova, who has been building an international career in Europe, singing a repertoire that ranges from Puccini’s Tosca and Madame Butterfly to Tchaikovsky’s Lisa and Tatiana. Temperamentally suited to the character, Ms. Aksenova acts the title role with a mix of tempestuousness and sensitivity, looks like what the role is: a very pretty show business star, and sings with intensity and assurance a role that is anything but easy.

When I first read that the English baritone Christopher Maltman was featured as Cascart – an Italian baritone part long associated with the likes of Sammarco, De Luca, and Amato – I wondered if he could deliver what the role demands. More than just surprised I was impressed by Maltman’s committed handling of the challenging role, including a beautifully sung Zazà, piccola zingara and a lovely Buona Zazà del mio buon tempo.

Nicolai Schukoff plays the role of Dufresne with an edgy mix of insouciance and earnestness, handling very well the high tessitura of the part of the duplicitous Frenchman.

The remainder of the cast escels as singing actors under the precise direction of Christof Loy, in a staging enhanced by the set of Raimund Orfeo Voigt and the costumes of Herbert Barz-Murauer. Stefan Soltész beautifully leads the ORF Radio Symphony of Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir with insight into the Verismo of Leoncavallo.