Fedora – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Arturo Colautti after the drama by Victorien Sardou [sung in Italian]
La principessa Fedora Romazov – Angela Gheorghiu
Il conte Loris Ipanov – Plácido Domingo
La contessa Olga Sukarev – Nino Machaidze
De Siriex, a diplomat – Fabio Maria Capitanucci
Dimitri, a groom – Maria Comparato
A little Savoyard – Pedro Leandro
Désiré, a valet – Nicola Pamio
Il barone Rouvel – Enrico Casari
Cirillo, a coachman – Alex Esposito
Borov, a doctor – Federico Longhi
Grech, a police officer – Giuseppe Scorsin
Lorek, a surgeon – Nabil Suliman
Nicola, footman – Sang Jun Lee
Sergio, a footman – Bernard Villiers
Michele, a porter – Bernard Giovani
Boleslao Lazinski, pianist (mute role) – Salvatore Percacciolo
Orchestre symphonique et choeurs de la Monnaie
Recorded January 2008 in Le Cirque Royal, Brussels
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: March 2011
CD No: DG 477 8367 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 36 minutes
“Fedora”, a success at and immediately following its premiere, was rarely thereafter produced and has received few commercial recordings. This is only the fifth studio recording. In the opera house in recent times it has fared better, a beneficiary of the open-mindedness towards neglected operas, with several revivals in the 1990s. The work suffers from a number of drawbacks. It is short, with little more than ninety minutes of music, while the casting requires a heroic tenor and a true verismo soprano, the latter certainly a rare bird these days. The parts for seconda donna and baritone are limited, while there is a host of comprimario parts. There is a dearth of expansive set-pieces; even ‘Amor ti vieta’ lasts a mere one minute and forty seconds. Major events take place offstage: we learn about the assassination of Fedora’s intended husband Vladimir and the deaths of Loris’s brother and mother from descriptions by third parties.
Angela Gheorghiu is particularly well equipped in vocal personality to portray suffering women. A chest-register full of poignant colours rising through a consistently expressive middle voice to a top which can either flame out in full voice or narrow down to the finest of pianissimos has proved a great asset. Her opening aria ‘O grandi occhi lucenti di fede’, sung as she gazes on the portrait of her fiancé, brings her whole range lovingly into play; it is a pity that her attack on the top A is flat. Later in the Act she has a much more agitated solo expressing frustration with the police before promising to extract revenge on the assassins in a poignant preghiera. The voice, characteristically, does not sound entirely secure in the latter. One can hear a parallel with her compatriot Ileana Cotrubas, whose minor unsteadiness was equally endearing.
In Act Two party-scene Colautti’s adaptation of the Sardou play does the composer few favours. The diplomat De Siriex and Countess Olga sing respectively of the all-embracing Russian woman and the superficial French male. Relegated to follow these less than essential characters, the tenor finally gets to sing as the work’s only well-known aria ‘Amor ti vieta’ slips in rather indecisively out of a conversational passage. That the crucial dialogue in which Loris confesses to killing Vladimir should take place against the performance of a pseudo-Chopin piano Nocturne is another debatable distraction.
The survival of Plácido Domingo’s voice (this recording was made around the time of his sixty-seventh birthday) is something of a miracle. The tone does not flow easily: it is now bulky in nature and he has to push it out rather laboriously. Loris’s arioso ‘Vedi, io piango’ is more forceful than Giordano’s markings imply. However, he has tackled the role with other sopranos, notably Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto and his stage experience and dramatic professionalism allow him to make something fruitful of a passage such as the rather dull Act Two racconto.
The love-duet which concludes the Act is a scaled-down replica of the finale of “Andrea Chenier”, based on the main love motive. Both singers let themselves go in the last few pages, with Gheorghiu taking a high C with no difficulty. Though all right in the security of the recording studio, I doubt whether the soprano could sustain the role in the opera house. In Act Three Domingo continues in spinto mode as Loris is consumed by anger, Gheorghiu manages to focus attention and indeed sympathy on Fedora. Her pleading for the supposed traitress is eloquent, then after Loris realises it is indeed her, the soft passage “Tutto tramonta” is deeply affecting, as are her last parlando utterances.
Olga is the second female, rather in the mould of Sophie in “Werther” is something of an airhead, whom the central tragic action passes by. Nevertheless Nino Machaidze plays the part positively. Of the subsidiary characters, the coachman Cirillo has a short dolorous aria and Alex Esposito makes the most of his opportunity. As well as its dramatic weaknesses, the work is well short of substance. There is quite a lot of padding, particularly in Act Three. Where Sardou set it in Paris, Giordano displaces the action to Switzerland, which gives him the opportunity to introduce some local colour (alpine horn calls, a female chorus and some fragments of “William Tell”-like ballet music), agreeably bracing in itself but superfluous to the main action. Attempts at modernism (electric bells, Olga and Di Siriex going on a cycle ride) add little.
Giordano is a fine composer. On occasions he falls back on filling gaps by repeating emotive fragments of melody. Nevertheless, some of his invention and treatment of instrumental themes is impressive. The interrogation of the staff in Act One is carried out over a figure reminiscent of the accompaniment to the Grand Inquisitor’s entrance in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”. In Act Three a baleful motif consisting of an accented bass note and a cluster of semiquavers is ominously present throughout the account by De Siriex of the grisly fate of Loris’s brother and mother, then it re-appears as Loris learns the same information, re-orchestrated and ending up as a tearful violin solo. Alberto Veronesi makes such points admirably prominent and pays the opera a deal of respect. His Brussels forces respond well to his approach.
One misses a degree of subtlety and vocal ease in Domingo’s singing but it is the epitome of grace compared with his counterpart Mario Del Monaco in Decca’s recording from 1969. Some will find Del Monaco thrilling but he is relentless, verging on the deafening. In the secondary roles there is little to choose between the two Countess Olgas. Tito Gobbi was luxury casting as De Siriex but he was nearing the end of his career in 1969 and the top notes had dried up. Fabio Maria Capitanucci cannot match him for verbal inflexion but offers freshness of tone.
The main recommendation for the old recording is Magda Olivero in the title role. It is customary to use the term ‘cult singer’ pejoratively but Olivero, who celebrated her hundredth birthday in 2010, was a unique singer who spared nothing in her portrayal of verismo heroines, roles that could have been written for her. Her tone, ravishingly beautiful when singing softly, would seem to be too fragile to sustain heavy pressure but she confounds expectations with the most daring crescendos and messa di voce, amazing breath-control and powerful declamation.. She seems to be heedless of the health of her voice yet she made her debut at the New York Metropolitan at the age of 64 and only retired from the stage at 71. Gheorghiu has a similar soulfulness in her basic sound but where Olivero goes right to the edge of vocal suicide in the search for theatrical effects, Gheorghiu stops well short of the brink.
The Decca set has been re-issued with the considerable bonus of roughly contemporary highlights from Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” in which Olivero is again partnered by Del Monaco. There is little sign of aging in the forty-year-old recording which must remain the recommendation – though, whatever my reservations, Gheorghiu is probably the best Fedora around today.