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Giacomo Puccini: Edgar
30 Aug 2010

Puccini’s Edgar at the Teatro Regio Torino

A world premiere of a new opera holds the promise of an exciting new addition to the fairly calcified collection of masterpieces that comprise the standard repertory.

Giacomo Puccini: Edgar

Edgar: José Cura; Fidelia: Amarilli Nizza; Tigrana: Julia Gertseva; Frank: Marco Vratogna; Gualtiero: Carlo Cigni. Conservatorio “Giuseppe Verdi” di Torino Boys’ Choir. Torino Teatro Regio Boys’ Choir. Torino Teatro Regio Chorus and Orchestra Yoram David, conductor. Lorenzo Mariani, stage director. Maurizio Balò, set and costume design. Christian Pinaud, light design. Recorded live from the Teatro Regio Torino, 2008.

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But opera companies have another strategy as well — to resurrect/rehabilitate forgotten works of proven masters. For Giacomo Puccini, the main beneficiary among his lesser-known operas has been La Rondine, a slight work with a mostly gorgeous score that has enjoyed a growing number of performances in recent years. Puccini’s extremely negative recorded comments on his first full-length opera, Edgar, seem to have kept the inquisitive away. The chief revelation of this 2008 Teatro Regio Torino staging of the full four-act Edgar is how right Puccini was to dismiss the work as hopeless. That does not mean, however, that the resulting DVD isn’t of interest. With strong male leads and a colorful, handsome staging by Lorenzo Mariani (with costumes and sets by Maurizio Balò), this Edgar makes for a mostly entertaining show.

After the initial failure of Edgar, Puccini convinced his publisher to find him another librettist than Ferdinado Fontana, indicating the theatrical sharpness that would guide the creation of the composer’s masterpieces to come. For Fontana, as judged by Edgar, was a hopeless librettist — narratively sluggish and prone to lumbering attempts at flights of poetry that never leave the ground. The opera’s basic story bears a strong resemblance to that of Wagner’s Tannhäuser — a young man can’t choose between a woman who excites him physically (Tigrana) and a more innocent woman who touches his heart (Fidelia). Fontana attempts a sort of love rectangle with the addition of Frank, another admirer of Fidelia who ends the opera at Edgar’s side, helping to restore Edgar’s reputation after his dalliance with Tigrana and flight to the army has led him to fake his own death. The story veers between being oppressively obvious and elliptically obscure. Later Puccini works would show the composer comfortable with sharp changes of mood and place between acts that require an audience to “catch up” with the story. That strategy doesn’t work here because the characters in Edgar, hobbled by Fontana’s verse, haven’t made a claim on the audience’s involvement.

José Cura’s portrayal of Edgar gains strength as the character darkens; the callow youth of the opening scene doesn’t fit him as well. The voice is as idiosyncratic as ever, with lines of forceful energy interspersed by unfortunate growls and yelps for high notes. A less charismatic tenor might sing the entire role better, but really only a stage animal like Cura has a chance of making the character believable at all. Cura is well-partnered in several key scenes by Marco Vratogna’s Frank, a very masculine and credible rival and, later, friend of the hero. Frank has a brief solo early on and not much of interest to sing after that, but Vratogna manages to hold his own anyway.

The two key female roles are less happily cast. Julia Gertseva has no choice but to ham up the overtly sexual, murderously jealous Tigrana. She is at least fun to watch and sings with attractive tone. As Fidelia, Amarilli Nizza never recovers from a long opening scene where her soprano sounds overly mature and strained. She does somewhat better in the last act, but her character’s passivity has long wore out her welcome by then.

Although the full blossoming of Puccini’s melodic talent was yet to come, much enjoyable music can be found in the score. Unfortunately, conductor Yoram David and the Torino forces sound tentative and undernourished. Be prepared, by the way, in the fourth act (discarded fairly early on by Puccini) to hear a great deal of the last act duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi.

Strangely, Richard Eckstein’s booklet essay ends abruptly with an ellipsis. Before that sudden conclusion, the writer covers the errant history of the opera satisfactorily. The Blu-Ray edition does a great job of presenting the bold colors and designs of the set and costumes. Only historical accuracy can explain the bizarre helmet of crow feathers Vratogna’s Frank and other soldiers have to sport in the third act.

Put the disc in your player expecting no more than some occasional patches of fine music and a great deal of insight into the early stages of Puccini’s career, and this Edgar will justify its existence.

Chris Mullins


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