12 Nov 2006


I’m surprised that such an eminent musicologist as Julian Budden, in his interesting essay accompanying the recording, still lays the blame for the relative failure of Edgar at the librettist’s feet.

And as critics like to copy sleeve notes, one finds this same opinion in Opera News’ review. I don’t buy this argument. Too often libretti are thought to be ridiculous — Trovatore is an outstanding example — because people don’t take the pains to read them line by line (and then Trovatore makes perfect sense). As long as a libretto is able to inspire its composer, it may ramble along.

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a prime example. At the end of Act I, René des Grieux and Manon elope from the clutches of Geronte. At the beginning of Act II, Manon is firmly established as the mistress of the same Geronte. Newbie’s seeing the opera for the first time probably wonder if by coincidence the two acts are not erroneously switched. Still Manon Lescaut was a success and Edgar was not. The fault, if there was one, lies with Puccini. The Tuscan was a very slow starter and in his first two operas he still had not found the inspiration to write those short, catchy tunes that would make him the most popular composer of his time. In Edgar, his melodies sound a little laboured (e.g. the tenor’s ‘O soave vision’) though after a few hearings they are clearly recognizable and enjoyable.

A real performance of Edgar always is a pleasure as I can witness. It is one of three ‘Flemish’ operas which were all performed some years ago in Antwerp as the story plays out itself in Flanders (the two others being Lohengrin and Tote Stadt) and Sharon Sweet as Fidelia was exemplary.

On record, as in the theatre, Edgar didn’t have much of a career. We had to wait until 1976 when CBS finally brought forth an official recording made during an OONY performance (Bergonzi, Scotto, Killebrew, Sardinero, Queler). And then it took another 29 years when Varady and Tanner recorded a far less impressive performance. The issue under review is superior in all aspects to its predecessors except one: the title role. Domingo is no match for Bergonzi. Though the Italian tenor already flattened every note from high A on by the time of his recording, his sense of phrasing in his arias and duets is vastly superior. Bergonzi’s middle voice at the time sounds far more beautiful and sweeter than Domingo nowadays can master. At 64 and after a career of 45 years, the shimmering beauty of Domingo’s voice is slowly deteriorating and he sounds nasal a lot of the time. His top notes are more firmly sung than Bergonzi’s though one wonders how much is still Domingo’s and how much came out of DG’s vaults. Adriana Damato is a wonderful Fidelia, equalling Scotto’s expressiveness without the shrillness that was often there with the older soprano. Her ‘Addio, , mio dolce amor’ is a calling card that should open many an opera house’s door as she combines the strength and the morbidezza needed of every Puccini soprano. I never felt Juan Pons was just a creation of the Caballé clan (sister and brother/impressario) whose career was bigger than his accomplishments. Maybe he didn’t have the necessary snarl for some of his roles like Rigoletto but once more he brings his well-rounded always musical voice to the role of Frank and the warmth of his voice is ideal for a sympathetic character. Pons is vastly superior to Sardinero. So is Marianne Cornetti in the all-bad role of Tigrana where she brings more metal than Killebrew had.

It’s good to hear the Orchestra and Chorus of the Roman Academia Sancta Cecilia, an orchestra whose ancestors were so intimately connected with the glorious London/Decca recordings of the fifties and sixties. The orchestra still has the luscious Puccini-sound and is conducted by Alberto Veronesi who doesn’t over sentimentalize the score but still brings out the glowing melodies clearly and incisively. Orchestra and chorus are splendid in the famous funeral music, which would be the first track one would play as a proof of Puccini’s coming genius.

I wish to digress one moment on the historical setting of the opera. It originated with a poem by Alfred de Musset who set the action in Tyrol (like La Wally). For some obscure reason librettist Fontana reset it in medieval Flanders, before and after the battle of the Golden Spurs (11th of July 1302, still Flanders national holiday) which ended the French king’s attempts to incorporate the county into his own domains. Should you ever visit Flanders, you would look in vain on maps or at road signs for a place called ‘Courtray’. The real name of this magnificent medieval city is Kortrijk and it is and always has been Dutch-speaking. As during the 19th century, a lot of inspiration was derived from French plays by libretto and other writers (though by now Mr. Budden should know better) who used French translations of place names. One is still confronted with ridiculous names like Courtray or Aix-la-Chapelle and Cologne (Aachen and Köln in Germany) that nobody uses in reality.

Jan Neckers