Alfano's reputation rests on his completion of Puccini's
Turandot. Out and out opera buffs will know or know of his operas
Risurezzione (1903) and La Leggenda di Sakuntala (1914-20)
either in full or in aria-extract. I am grateful to Amanda Holden's
'New Penguin Opera Guide' for further background information. From this
I can say that Alfano was born in the Naples region of Italy. He studied
in Naples, Leipzig and briefly in Paris and Berlin.
The final decision about the Alfano completion of Turandot
fell to Toscanini who made many cuts and adjustments to Alfano’s work.
We were only able to hear Alfano's unbowdlerised version on 3 November
1982 after forceful advocacy by the critic Mosco Carner. Alfano's star
plunged further towards oblivion because of his fascist associations.
A whole generation of actual or perceived Axis composers (including
Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Schillings and Pfitzner - some dreadful
irony in that list) had their music almost erased for many decades.
Indeed Alfano's greatest hit Sakuntala could only be revived
in Pesaro because Alfano had to rewrite the score because the original
score and orchestral material had been obliterated when the Allied bombing
of Milan destroyed the Ricordi archives in 1942.
The plot of Cyrano is based on a novella by
Henri Cain after Edmond Rostand's play. Cain was the librettist of Massenet's
Navarraise, Sapho, Cendrillon, Chérubin,
Don Quichotte and Roma. Alfano was attracted to the subject
but Cain's fee was felt to be unreasonably high. After a long flirtatious
negotiation the contract was signed in 1933 and finished in 1935 in
line with Alfano's agreement with Kalmus.
The story is fairly well known but here it is in outline.
The backdrop is the period 1640 to 1700. France is at war with the Spanish
invader. Cyrano is in undeclared love with Roxane. Roxane falls in love
with Christian. Roxane get Cyrano to promise that he will protect Christian
in battle. Cyrano helps the obtuse and awkward Christian woo Roxane
with eloquent letters. Cyrano is in torment. Christian finally realises
that Cyrano loves Roxane and in battle insists Cyrano should tell Roxane
all. Before he can do this Christian is brought back from the field
dying of his wounds and Cyrano keeps his secret. Roxane retires to a
convent and years later Cyrano visits her after a fight in which he
has taken a clubbed blow to the head. He is fatally wounded but conceals
his wounds from her. He reads to her Christian's last letter but adds
so much to it that Roxane at long last comes to know that he loves her
and has always loved her. She always loved the writer of those precious
beguiling letters and now knows it is Cyrano. As is the way with these
plots Cyrano dies.
The libretto is in French and so it is sung here. The
world premiere nevertheless took place in Rome conducted by Tullio Serafin
with Barthelémy Gheusi (at ease in both Italian and French) as
Cyrano and Maria Caniglia as Roxane. There were performances shortly
afterwards in Paris and then, in Leipzig and Erfurt in German translation
This is one of those operas where there is a great
deal of singing ... if that doesn’t sound completely fatuous. Indeed
there are seventy pages of libretto; all double columned. The solo voices
are engaged at most times; comparatively short commons for the chorus.
Across the whole opera there are three orchestral introductions but
these last less than five minutes put together.
Alfano, at this stage in his career, was writing in
an opulently tonal style. Everything is lyrically singable. His orchestral
palette is overflowingly affluent but rarely loud. He seems to revel
in tones suggestive of silks, damasks, purple, gold and silver cloths,
iridescence, numinous effects and translucent texturing. He belongs
in the company of such orchestral mages as Zemlinsky, Korngold Die
Kathrin, Die Tote Stadt and Violanta), Schoeck (more
the orchestral and vocal brilliance of Massimilla Doni and Schloss
Durande than the brutal originality of Penthesilea) and Schreker
(Die Gezeichneten and Die Ferne Klang). At this stage
Alfano had nothing to prove. He was master of his craft. He was having
no truck with Berg and Schoenberg except perhaps the early expressionism
of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.
The Germanic names I have mentioned should not distract
us from other even more helpful parallels. Cain might well have provided
librettos for Massenet however it is a later generation whose names
and musical lingua franca come to mind when hearing Cyrano.
Alfano avoids the dense but intoxicating effects of Florent Schmitt.
He is closer to Ropartz in Le Pays (1910) and to Roussel in Padmavâtî
(1918) stripped of the Oriental exoticisms. Another French composer
who presents yet closer parallels is the Breton Lazzari in his verismo
opera La Lépreuse (now there's a project for CPO, along
with Atterberg's opera Fanal, 1934). Closer to home (Alfano's
home) we may quite properly think of another Italian operatic practitioner
slighted by the post-War establishment, Ottorino Respighi. Alfano's
orchestral skills had also been honed through study of the scores of
both Ravel and Debussy. I wondered about parallels between Cyrano
and Pelléas et Mélisande but while the notes
speak of this opera as a vast 'symphonic poem' there is too much variety
and dramaturgical spirit in Cyrano to make much of a link with
Debussy's opera. There is no levity in this work. It is serious and
tender, exuberant and joyous, ecstatic and often spell-binding. There
are many bejewelled moments but it is flawed. The flaw is in the finish.
The fourth and final act lasts only twenty minutes after its predecessors
running to 17, 53 and 30 minutes respectively. That final act lacks
the great emotional pay-off that Puccini might have brought to it. The
ending, which is one of grand tragedy, needs more emotional stuffing
- a slashing blow of tragic fate sustained or built over the twenty
minutes. Somehow this eludes Alfano. I compare this with listening to
Korngold's Die Kathrin, Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and
Zemlinsky's Der Traumgörge. All of these build and seize
the final climactic moments. Alfano lets them pass in a modest downbeat
gesture that is far too undemonstrative.
In doing this he defies the many succinctly built emotional
climaxes and wonderful episodes that occur throughout this grand lyrical
and impressionistic opera. I mention only a few of many. The battlefield
trumpets are brilliantly done in true Korngoldian style at 00.48 tr.
6 CD2. Roxane’s realisation of Cyrano’s love is superbly caught in her
aria Je lisais (CD2 tr. 8) in which Manuela Uhl grips this Tosca-like
moment with full majesty. This is wondrously fresh climax that will
appeal to you if you appreciate Vissi d'arte. The playful prelude
to Act 1 is like a light-handed version of Petrushka. However
this is a romantic opera and if we wish to be reminded of this then
sample tracks 29 and 30 (tous mes appels d'amour) of CD1. This
is lush writing, reeking of characteristics we now unfairly associate
with Hollywood (due to the émigrés who trekked there to
make their livings). That the experience proved so joyful is high tribute
to all involved and I cannot help singling out for special laurels Uhl
and Sadnik as well as the virtuoso work of the Kiel Philharmonic under
their sympathetic conductor Markus Frank.
The substantial booklet notes with this set are by
Andreas K.W. Meyer, Konrad Dryden (biographer of Zandonai and Leoncavallo)
and the conductor Markus Frank. These notes (though flecked with typos
- at least in the English translation) are a thorough traversal of Cyrano,
its background and the close and distant context. The booklet
runs to 147 pages.
The two hour opera is generously tracked - 32 on CD1
and 17 on CD2. The libretto which runs the sung French side by side
with the English translation itself cues the text to the tracks. The
notes are given in German translation but there is no such favour for
the libretto. No sign of any Italian anywhere. The booklet carries illustrations
(about ten plates) from the Kiel Opera production (a fairly subdued
minimalist approach by all appearances) from which this recording derives
as well as three historical Alfano photographs. It is all extremely
well done and while you are enjoying this recording you will be able
to catch the full flavour and setting of the opera.
This is not the first commercial recording though it
is almost certainly its first appearance on CD. The work was recorded
on the MRF label in 1975.
Quite a triumph leaving us licking our lips for Sakuntala,
Risurezzione, Don Juan de Mañara, Madonna Imperia
and L'Ultimo Lord.
La fonte di Enschir (1898)
Il Principe Zilah (1909)
L'Ombra di Don Giovanni (later revised as Don Juan de Mañara
- not to be confused with Eugene Goossens' 1930s opera of the same
name) (1914, rev. 1941)
Madonna Imperia (1927)
L'Ultimo Lord (1930)
Cyrano de Bergerac (1936)
Il dottor Antonio (1949)