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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Edgar - dramma lirico in three acts (1889)
Edgar, Placido Domingo (ten); Fidelia, Adriana Damato (sop); Tigrana, Marianne Cornetti (mezzo); Frank, Juan Pons (bar); Gualtiero, Rafael Siwek (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Alberto Veronesi
rec. Auditorium della Musica, Sala Santa Cecilia, 22 June 2005
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6102 GH2 [45.41 + 37.47]
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After the modest success of the revised Le villi, his first opera, Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, agreed to advance him a modest monthly stipend in order that he could clear his debts and devote himself to writing another opera. For the libretto Puccini turned again to Ferdinando Fontana who had not only provided the book for Le villi but had raised a subscription for its first staging. Never the most prolific or speedy composer, Puccini took more than three years to complete Edgar. To some extent, the difficulty was caused by the Fontana’s libretto. Based upon La Coupe et les lèvres, a play in verse by Alfred de Musset, the libretto, originally in four acts, was even less felicitous than that produced for Le villi. During this time, Puccini lived on his royalties from Le villi and also on the Ricordi stipend for which he had to ask for an extension of time. When it came to Manon Lescaut, his third opera and first great success, Puccini was far less accommodating to his librettists as I outline in my review of the recently issued Naxos performance of the 1954 recording featuring Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling (review). When Puccini’s brother Michele, after an unsuccessful attempt to set up as music teacher, emigrated to South America, the composer was forced to send him money, which he could ill afford. The more he realized how important it was that he should finish Edgar quickly, the less easily did the music flow.

The premiere of Edgar was eventually scheduled to take place at La Scala on Easter Sunday, 21 April 1889 nearly five years after the premiere of Le villi. Puccini had hoped that Francesco Tamagno who, in 1887 had been Verdi's first Otello, would sing the title role and as late a date as two months before the premiere he was still attempting to secure the famous tenor. In the event Tamagno went off to lucrative engagements in America, and Puccini had to rest content with a Romanian tenor, Gregorio Gabrielesco. The conductor of the premiere was Franco Faccio who had launched Verdi's Otello to success in 1887, but was unable to do the same for Puccini's Edgar. The opera was politely received on its first night, but only two further performances were given. Critical opinion of Edgar was in general unfavourable. Despite the response Ricordi issued a statement immediately after the premiere suggesting that the composer should not feel discouraged. Six days later Ricordi called a meeting with Puccini and Fontana to discuss what might be done with Edgar.

At age 31 Puccini’s career hung in the balance. Despite Ricordi’s wish that the composer move on, Puccini made further changes in Edgar for a production in 1890. The intended production was aborted when the tenor became ill. When eventually staged this four-act revision was a success and stimulated Puccini to further revisions reducing the number of acts to three. This three-act version was premiered in Ferrara on 28 February 1892 and for its first performance outside Italy, at the Teatro Real, Madrid, the great tenor Tamagno at last sang Edgar. Still not satisfied Puccini made further alterations in 1901 and 1905, the year after the premiere of Madama Butterfly when Giovanni Zenatello sang the title role. Thereafter Puccini abandoned the opera as did the world’s opera houses and it was never performed again in his lifetime. The first British performance was in a semi-professional production in 1967.

The plot concerns the vacillations Edgar has between his love of Fidelia and his passion for Tigrana. He yields to the latter, but tiring of it returns to Fidelia who is stabbed by the jealous Tigrana. The reduction to three acts savaged the role of Tigrana, reducing it to little more than a comprimario part, although that is not to understate the role’s importance in duets and ensembles. In this three-act version Tigrana has a higher tessitura than when Puccini first conceived the role and although it continues to be designated for mezzo-soprano it can be sung with comfort by a dramatic soprano. On this recording it is sung by the warm toned mezzo Marianne Cornetti who sings characterfully if not always ideally steadily with moments of intrusive vibrato (CD 1 trs. 4-5). She makes what she can of her abbreviated Dal labbro mio as Tigrana exerts all her powers of seduction (CD 1 tr. 15). Cornetti’s voice is easily distinguishable from the lighter-toned Adriana Damato as Fidelia (CD 1 tr. 2) whose lyric soprano has sufficient heft for Adio mia dolce (CD 2 tr.4) and the drama of the final act where she colours her tone well and has the ability to sing softly. As Frank, Juan Pons is more stolid than imaginative.

At the end of the day if it were not for the interest of the eponymous tenor part the opera would still be languishing in some dusty archive. When Tamagno eventually got round to satisfying Puccini and sang the role in Spain, four numbers were encored and Queen Maria Christina invited the composer to her box to offer her congratulations. Doubtless it was Domingo’s wish, and Deutsche Grammophon’s willingness, to record the role that brings this new recording. It is a matter of some amazement that the distinguished tenor, now well into his sixties and with many Wagnerian roles to his credit as well as innumerable Otellos, can lighten his tone in the distinctive manner he does. Needless to say he has plenty of heft and variety of vocal colour to meet all the role’s demands. Inevitably there is some downside in that when the tessitura rises he tends to squeeze the vocal emission more than in his earlier years when that part of his singing would have been more open-throated. Domingo enthusiasts need not hesitate. The great tenor’s performance here adds to his unequalled list of operatic recordings.

The recording is clear and well balanced with a touch of bloom around the voices. Alberto Veronesi on the podium nurses the music through its thinner parts and doesn’t overdo the drama. Puccini’s use of motif is easily picked out in an interpretation that is appropriately delicate in the orchestral prelude to act three. There is an interesting booklet essay and synopsis in English, German and French and full libretto with translations in the same languages. It would have been helpful if the synopsis had been track-related. This recording and performance comfortably supersedes the Sony issue made from live concert performances in New York under Eve Queler with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi.

Puccini completists and Domingo fans need not hesitate.

Robert J Farr


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