Opera Holland Park 2024 – Puccini’s Edgar – with Peter Auty, Anne Sophie Duprels & Gweneth Ann Rand; directed by Ruth Knight; conducted by Naomi Woo

Edgar [1905 version, performed in an orchestral reduction by Tony Burke] – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana after Alfred Musset’s La Coupe et les lèvres [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Edgar – Peter Auty
Fidelia – Anne Sophie Duprels
Tigrana – Gweneth Ann Rand
Frank – Julien Van Mellaerts
Gualtiero – James Cleverton
Young Edgar – Edward Courquin
Young Fidelia – Anhelina Rubanets
Young Tigrana – Hermona Zeleke

Opera Holland Park Chorus, and Children from the Pimlico Musical Foundation and Tiffin School

City of London Sinfonia
Naomi Woo

Ruth Knight – Director
Mark Jonathan – Lighting
Haruka Kuroda – Fight director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 2 July, 2024
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London

Edgar, the second of Puccini’s operas, is probably the least encountered of the thirteen that he wrote, though New Sussex Opera brought it to the Cadogan Hall in its earlier four-Act version in 2012. Since then, however, even the first, Le Villi, has had more of a look-in, having been produced by Opera Holland Park in 2022, and receiving a concert performance by Opera Rara at the Royal Festival Hall in 2018. The opera finds the composer still developing his voice, though various passages do certainly hint at his mature style – but that probably arises from the fact that he revised it on several occasions between its premiere in 1889 and 1905 when he finally gave up on it – by which time he had scored huge successes with La boheme and Tosca and had become a much more assured composer.

The story of the eponymous mediaeval knight, torn between a pure, devoted love, and a more debauched one, rather resembles Tannhäuser, although Puccini’s drama is as much about Tigrana (the figure corresponding to Wagner’s Venus) and her confrontations with Edgar and the disapproving villagers, as she has a significantly larger role to play in the opera than the virtuous Fidelia. Given Edgar’s self-indulgent use and eventual despatch of Tigrana when he goes to join the army, the music tends to underscore the sympathy we might have for her. The conventional moral is only made at the end: Edgar stages his own death but, in disguise, denounces his character and reputation, to see who will remain faithful to his memory. Only Fidelia does, after Tigrana is prevailed upon to accuse him falsely as a betrayer of his country, having been bribed to do so by her former lover, Frank, and the disguised Edgar. Her motivation is understandable in light of his earlier rejection of her. Tigrana has the parting shot however – literally – as she assassinates Fidelia in a fit of jealous rage, when the latter and Edgar are reunited once he has revealed himself.

Ruth Knight’s production for OHP moves the action from early 14th-century Flanders to late Victorian Britain – the women in crinolines, Frank clad in red as British army officer – which points up well its theme of social respectability and puritanical paranoia about sexual impropriety. During the Prelude, youthful actors mime the backstory of Edgar, Fidelia and Tigrana as children, forging a more poignantly innocent friendship when the latter is abandoned by her parents in the remote village where the other two are also growing up, but destined to remain an outsider. Although billed as a semi-staging, it’s fully choreographed and the solo cast are costumed. Only the chorus wear impersonal black trousers and T-shirts – though the choir of children are fitted out in cassocks and surplices for Edgar’s feigned funeral scene – but their musical vigour proves that they are fully committed dramatically.

In the title role, Peter Auty is less strained and sustains his vocal lines more fluidly than on the occasion I last heard him, by coincidence in another opera with a Flemish setting, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt at Longborough, although the part of Paul does tend to lie higher. He exudes a deliberately more raw, nasal quality when adopting the guise of the friar (reinterpreted here as an Anglican curate) and denounces Edgar for his supposed shortcomings. Julien Van Mellaerts achieves a more typically Italianate lyricism and passion as Frank, especially in his Act One aria in which he turns from fury to regret as he reflects on his unrequited feelings for Tigrana in music very characteristic of Puccini. On stage Gweneth Ann Rand is generally a forbearing, sorrowing Tigrana, but vocally she cultivates a broad vibrato to denote a certain degree of exoticism and allure, resulting in a more developed character than a stereotypical femme fatale. Anne Sophie Duprels makes the most of the relatively small amount of music given to Fidelia – if there’s a slight tendency to a hard edge in her voice and to swoop, that emboldens the character, rather than making her simply a meekly virtuous woman. James Cleverton is quietly resolute as Gualtiero, the father of Fidelia and Frank. 

Naomi Woo leads the City of London Sinfonia in a steady account of the score. Sometimes it could surge with more ardour, and the orchestra’s fairly small numbers mean that some lapses in intonation or ensemble are exposed. But they are attentive to the various shades of instrumental colour, for instance the heroic horns which accompany Edgar and Tigrana’s escape from the villagers’ curse at the end of Act One, or the sombre introduction to the next Act for the strings, as Edgar laments the ‘illusions’ of his life with Tigrana. Despite the composer’s misgivings about the opera, this rare outing makes a good case for its merits, especially in the hectically dramatic first Act, as well as a fascinating insight into Puccini’s musical development.

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