12 Mar 2011

Gheorghiu and Domingo in Giordano’s Fedora

A major label release of a new studio recording of a full opera — with the traditional booklet/libretto — wanders onto the scene almost like a lost and lonely unicorn.

In the case of Deutsche Grammophon and this Fedora, the booklet inside cover gives a revealing detail — the actual recording happened in January 2008. Undoubtedly the contracts were signed some time before that. The tenor lead, Pl├ícido Domingo, was still in his 60s, and Angela Gheorghiu, in the eponymous role, had attained the height of her stardom. The work itself may not be a title for which opera fans were clamoring for a modern studio version, but it has one number everyone knows (the big second act tenor aria, “Amor ti Vieta”), so it combines some of the appeal of both rare repertoire and a known quality.

With Domingo widely celebrated this year on reaching his 70th birthday while maintaining his tenor stardom (albeit, frequently in baritone roles these days), DG surely made the right decision to release this now, or face leaving it in the vaults forever. Perhaps the latter would have been the better option. Not that the recording is some monstrous calamity. It’s more a matter that the inherent weaknesses of Fedora that have made it an obscure work on opera stages, combined with the debatable casting, lend a sad, desultory air to the set.

Conductor Alberto Veronesi comes off best. He keeps the music moving, and the frequent passages of scene-setting — not composer Umberto Giordano’s strength — have ample color. At the score’s best moments — especially the afore-mentioned solo for tenor — the momentary melodic sweep of the score can almost make a listener understand what led the DG executives to think, at one time, that this was a worthwhile project.

Based on a Sardou play, the libretto of Arturo Colautti is a narratively clumsy contraption. Too much of the confusing action happens off stage, requiring the awkward appearance of messengers and letters with necessary exposition. One can point out any number of plot discrepancies in Puccini and his librettist’s adaptation of Sardou’s later play Tosca, but the genius of Puccini at least allows for a comprehensible narrative flow, and more importantly, his music simply attains a higher level of imagination and skill.

More harmful is the baffling appeal of the soprano heroine. She starts the drama so deeply in love with a Count that when the Count is brought to her, mortally wounded after a mysterious encounter in a park, she vows revenge against his killer. In act two she feels she has located the killer in the person of one Loris Ipanov — who, for unclear reasons, has found the time to know Fedora and fall in love with her. She feels some tug of romantic attraction, but she follows up on her vow of revenge by writing a letter to Ipanov’s home country’s security forces. By act three she is totally in love with Loris, who has explained his violent encounter with the Count to her in a way that allows her to regret her vow of vengeance. However, her letter has resulted in the deaths of his brother and mother. As he vows the same sort of revenge she had vowed in act one, she drinks poison rather than face her lover as the killer of his brother and sister.

It could be argued that this scenario presents two very complex characters, combining both heroic and villainous qualities, depending on the scenario before the audience at any point of the libretto. However, the characterization is far from complex, and the result is more a mish-mash of unappealing people distraught over their own unappealing actions. Feeble subplots tacked onto the action (which still totals barely 100 minutes) don’t help.

Those who know and have some admiration for this opera will expect a larger, more dramatic voice than that of Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. She would surely be totally wrong in a stage production, but as recorded, one can at least enjoy the innate beauty of her instrument. Perhaps the ludicrous dramaturgy requires a more vehement delivery, but your reviewer was thankful not to have to put up with guttural hysterics. Domingo’s character does not appear until act two, and it is hard to understand why anyone was satisfied with the recorded take used here, as the great tenor sounds tired and the instrument uncharacteristically wobbly for much of this act, including the big aria. He seems caught in better voice for act three. In a minor role, soprano Nino Machaidze adds some acid to her light voice and makes a very good impression.

The booklet reports that Fedora was the vehicle for Enrico Caruso’s major debut, and as long as audiences enjoy a rip-roaring Italian opera aria, “Amor ti Vieta” will live on. Based on this latest recording, those two facts will continue to be the salient ones to know about Fedora.

Chris Mullins