Franco Alfano is best known for having composed the standard ending to Puccini's Turandot. But he wrote some 12-13 operas under his own name as well. A few of these are revisions of earlier operas. The most familiar of his works have long been La resurrezione (1904), Sakuntala (1922, revised 1952) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1936). Cyrano seems to be coming into its own in the last few years, what with a performance in Kiel and a revival planned for Montpellier in 2003. The latter was cancelled due to strikes (although it was filmed anyway). This was followed by a few performances at the end of the 2004-5 Metropolitan Opera season, with more performances planned at Covent Garden in 2005 and the Met for the 2005-06 season. It is very much the tenor's opera, with the revival (that never really happened as far as the general public is concerned) in Montpellier featuring Roberto Alagna, and that at the Met featuring Placido Domingo, now approaching the end of a fantastic career. He is also scheduled to sing it at Covent Garden, and again at the Met next year. It is my understanding that Alagna will also sing some additional performances.
When Cyrano was created in Rome on Jan. 14, 1936, the original French text was translated into Italian. José Luccioni, one of the last of the great French dramatic tenors, was selected to sing the title role, while Maria Caniglia, famous for her complete opera recordings with Beniamino Gigli and Gino Bechi, was the first Roxane. It was one of the last operas of the verismo school, although much of the music was more lyrical than what we normally expect in verismo. It was finally given in French at the Opéra Comique on May 29, 1936. It then reverted to the Italian text when it opened the 1937 season at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, followed by some other performances in Italy including Naples in 1938, La Scala in 1954 with Ramon Vinay in the title role and several broadcasts by Italian radio. The last of these, from Turin in 1975, now again in French, featured William Johns and Olivia Stapp. This was issued on both LP and CD. William Johns's interpretation probably was reminiscent in many ways of Luccioni's creation of the role, at least in terms of emphasis on the dramatic side. There is no recorded evidence of Luccioni in the role, so we can only surmise what he must have sounded like from his other recordings.
The plot is relatively simple, although it has an unusual twist. Cyrano and Christian, who soon becomes his friend, are both among the cadets of Gascony and both love Cyrano's cousin Roxane. Cyrano is ugly, thanks to his huge nose, but a brilliant swordsman, and very articulate. Christian is handsome, but tongue tied. Roxane is very attracted to Christian, and, not fully realizing that Cyrano loves her himself, confides her love for Christian to Cyrano, and commends him to her cousin's care. It is very important to Roxane that her lover to be able to express his love beautifully. Perceiving that he doesn't have a chance, Cyrano decides to help Christian, and agrees to provide him with the needed declaration of love, which wins Roxane for the latter. Cyrano withdraws so that Christian can get her kiss. The Count de Guiche, the commander of the cadets, also loves Roxane. He permits the marriage, but gets his revenge by posting the two friends to the siege of Arras, where Christian is killed. Roxane retires to a convent where Cyrano visits her regularly for 15 years, but, remembering that he had once vowed to Christian to keep their secret, never tells her the truth. During the last of these visits, she gives Cyrano one of Christian's letters to read. He reads it, continuing as it gets too dark to actually see what's in the letter. It dawns on her that, since Cyrano knows the words, he was the one who wrote the letters. She, realizes that it was always Cyrano's soul that she loved. But, it is too late, and Cyrano dies in her arms.
Two of the love scenes: make for very effective theater. These are in Act III where Cyrano makes an impassioned declaration of love in Christian's name to his cousin, and the final one, where Roxane realizes the truth. The rest of the music also is very pleasant listening, and has at least two very catchy set numbers. These are Cyrano's "Ballade du duel" in Act I and the duet, "Ce sont les cadets de Gascogne," in Act II. The singing is excellent, with Alagna easily the finest French tenor active today, as well as being one of the best of today's crop of singers. However, his interpretation is much more lyric than that which Luccioni's must have been, and which Johns's was. If a new series of Athree tenor" concerts were to be organized, I would certainly recommend Alagna to be one of the participants. The supporting cast, headed by Nathalie Manfrino as Roxane, Richard Troxell as Christian, Marc Barrard as Ragueneau and Nicolas Rivenq as De Guiche, are all fine. Manfrino and Troxell seem to be relatively new, although Troxell did sing Cassio in Otello in San Diego, getting fine reviews. Barrard, who sang Manfredo in Mercadante's Il giuramento in Nantes some years ago, and Rivenq, who often sings in Martina Franca, are old hands and already familiar from other recordings.
Much as I enjoyed it, I consider it unfortunate that this recording was only released on DVD. The latter format has the tremendous advantage of providing a visual as well as as an audio experience, but it also fails to provide a multi-lingual libretto and adequate liner notes, which tell the purchaser something about the composer and the history of the opera. Much as I enjoyed it, I consider it unfortunate that this recording was only released on DVD. The latter format has the tremendous advantage of providing a visual as well as as an audio experience, but it also fails to provide a multi-lingual libretto and adequate liner notes, which tell the purchaser something about the composer and the history of the opera. The DVD does have captions (or subtitles) in both French and English, but it seems to me that the English translations are so clumsy as to detract from the enjoyment of the opera for non-French speakers. Three examples should suffice: "Fat man, if you go on, I will see myself constrained to cut off your face," "noised so loud abroad" and "he will lesson well;" but there are many more. It seems that these may have been prepared by someone who is considerably more fluent in French than in English, although at times it sounds as if the job was done by a computer.
The above comments notwithstanding, my overall impression of the opera and the DVD are that they are both excellent, and can be highly recommended.