Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Cyrano de Bergerac - opera in four acts (sung in French) (1936)
Cyrano - Plàcido Domingo (tenor); Roxane - Sondra Radvanovsky (soprano); Christian, Arturo Chacón Cruz (tenor); De Guiche, Rodney Gilfry (baritone); Ragueneau, Corrado Carmelo Caruso (bass);
Valenciana Community Orchestra and Chorus/Patrick Fournillier
Stage director and designer: Michail Zananiecki;
Costume designer: Isabelle Comte;
Video director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 8, 11, 18 February 2007.
NAXOS DVD 2.110270 [141:00]
Alfano? I hear you ask, yet with a slight wrinkle of the brow as if somewhere in the distant memory bank there is a file. Rightly so, at least for any opera enthusiast. Alfano is mainly remembered as the man eventually chosen by the publisher, Ricordi, and Toscanini, the resident conductor at La Scala, to complete Puccini’s Turandot. It will be remembered that at the composer’s death part of the last act remained unscored.
Born near Naples, Alfano completed his first opera, still unpublished, in 1896. He had difficulty in getting later works performed in Italy, finding more success abroad. Ricordi supported his opera Risurrezione, based on Tolstoy; it was successful in Turin in 1905. It was very much in the Puccinian style and reached over one thousand performances. Later operas were only modestly received. He took up teaching at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna becoming director in 1916. It was from the Liceo that he presented his successful Sakuntala. This was an opera in a completely different idiom the orientalism of which must have been influential in Ricordi’s decision that Alfano was the man to complete Turandot. The completed Turandot, was presented at La Scala in April 1926. Alfano’s completion was abbreviated by Toscanini and in its shortened form involves around fifteen minutes of music.
Alfano wrote several orchestral works. His opera Madonna Imperia reached the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1928, a year after its premiere. By this time his work was more influenced by the likes of Richard Strauss and Debussy rather than having its own particular distinctive patina.
Alfano took up the story of Cyrano de Bergerac as the basis for an opera in 1933. Founded on the novel by Edmond Rostand the opera was premiered in Rome in January 1936 under the baton of Tulio Serafin. It was performed in Paris in May that year in the French translation that is used in this performance. Like other artists in Italy in that inter-war period, Alfano was forced to become associated with the Fascist regime. This has tended to sully his reputation somewhat.
Cyrano de Bergerac tells the story of the proboscally challenged Cyrano. He is infatuated with Roxanne, who is also loved by Christian. Cyrano has the heroic skills as a swordsman and fighter denied to his rival. More importantly, he is also a skilful poet, well able to express his love for a woman. After various battles and duels Cyrano meets Roxanne only to discover she is in love with the young and handsome Christian. Resigned to the fact that his own disfigurement makes him unacceptable to Roxanne, Cyrano realises his own inspirational eloquence and poetry are what Christian needs and determines to help him become Roxanne’s perfect suitor. He reads with ardour his own poetry below her balcony as Christian stands by, giving the impression that it is his. Cyrano agonizes as she declares her love for the young man who climbs to the balcony and embraces her (Chs. 13-15).
Unbeknown to Christian, Cyrano writes other ardent letters in his name that are smuggled across the lines during the battle of Arras where Christian is killed. For many years Cyrano keeps this information secret so as not to sully Christian’s name. He then meets Roxanne, now in a convent. Cyrano has been mortally wounded as Roxanne asks him to read what she believes to be Christian’s last letter. Cyrano does so and she at last realises the truth. Cyrano dies as Roxanne declared her love for him despite his nose (Ch. 26).
After languishing in neglect for many years, Alfano’s Cyrano was seen in a production at Montpellier in 2003 with Roberto Alagna in the title role. This has appeared on DVD. Plàcido Domingo took up the role, as his one hundred and twenty first, and a production was mounted at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in May 2005, by Francesca Zambello with designs by Peter J Davidson. This production has since transferred to Covent Garden where it was seen in May 2006 and onwards to La Scala. It should have been the basis of these performances celebrating the new theatre Reina Sofia, in Valencia whose impressive, futuristic, exterior is seen in the introduction (Ch. 1). It seems there were problems with a collapse of part of the theatre stage-machinery required for the sets. The upshot was a new, simpler but affective staging by Michail Zananiecki. Its main focus is a central rotunda with steps and openings through which entrances and activities take place. His staging may not be as spectacular as reports of the Zambello production indicate, but like his direction, aided by drapes and lighting, it is effective. My only question is as to the relevance of what appear to be acrobats descending on ropes and drapes from time to time. The costumes are in period.
Above anything else what Cyrano de Bergerac needs beyond even an accomplished production and sets, are two committed and affecting singing actors in the title role and that of Roxanne. As far as the eponymous role is concerned it has an outstanding protagonist in Plàcido Domingo. His acting is fully integrated into his singing to add a further histrionic portrayal to his many others. The tessitura of the music suits his now baritonal tenor perfectly, with no demanding high Cs or the like and plenty of opportunity for dramatic involvement. His portrayal of the death of Cyrano, after hearing Roxanne’s true thoughts (Ch. 26), is as powerfully sung as his well known reading of the death of Otello in act four of Verdi’s opera. In this histrionic tour de force Domingo is aided, as in the Verdi, by the composer’s music. This ending, in the manner of its portrayal and its poignancy, reminded me also of the death of Boris in Mussorgsky’s opera. As Roxanne, Sondra Radvanovsky matches Domingo in dramatic involvement - no mean feat. Her lustrous soprano is warm and vibrant and allied to her vocal and dramatic capacity it is an instrument to savour. Radvanovsky lacks some clarity of diction to convince me that she is a major force in the operatic firmament. Her outburst of love to Christian (Ch. 20) is delivered via powerful and committed singing of a high order.
Cyrano de Bergerac also depends on a cluster of lesser parts the most important of which, along with Christian, is De Guiche. This vital role is sung with strong even tones and dramatic involvement (Ch. 17) by North American baritone Rodney Gilfry; not ‘Rod’ as the booklet refers to him, I must note. In the cameo role of Ragueneau, Corrado Carmelo Caruso’s well tuned bass is a virtue. The Christian of Arturo Chacón Cruz lacks the qualities of persona and vitality that could be seen as appropriate to that of the role. I rather doubt that Cruz had anything better to offer being unpoetic not only in his acting and inflections but also in his singing.
Robert J Farr