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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora (1898)
Daniela Dessi (soprano) – Fedora: Fabio Armiliato (tenor) – Loris: Alfonso Antoniozzi (baritone) – de Sirieux: Daria Kovalenko (soprano) – Olga: Margherita Rotondi (soprano) – Dimitri: Manuel Pierattelli (tenor) – Desirée: Alessandro Fantoni (tenor) – Rouvel: Luigi Roni (bass) – Cirillo: Claudio Ottino (bass) – Boroff: Roberto Maietta (bass) – Gretch: Davide Mura (bass) – Lorek: Sirio Restani (piano) – Lazinski: Sebastiano Carbone (treble) – Peasant boy
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice/Valerio Galli
rec. Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, March 2015
DYNAMIC 57772 Blu-ray [108 mins]

While Giordano’s Andrea Chenier retains a precarious toehold on the fringes of the standard operatic repertory, his Fedora is sufficient of a rarity that he stands in danger of being classified, along with his contemporaries Mascagni and Leoncavallo, as a one-opera composer. Performances in the theatre are scarce, and the current listings in the catalogue are similarly sparse; after a 1931 outing on 78s, there appear to have been only three studio recordings. The first was a 1969 Decca set featuring the veteran team of Magda Olivero, Mario del Monaco and Tito Gobbi, the second a 1986 CBS outing with Eva Marton, José Carreras and a supporting cast drawn from the Hungarian State Opera, and in 2011 a DG recording with Angela Georghiu and Placido Domingo appeared. In fact over the years Fedora seems to have featured nearly as well in terms of video recordings; this is its third outing on DVD, following two productions both featuring the team of Domingo and Mirella Freni. The production here has also been released on CD, to join a few alternative live readings enshrining performances by such sopranos as Renata Tebaldi and Magda Olivero (again); it is unfortunate that Maria Callas, who took the title role into her repertoire never, so far as I can tell, recorded a note of the part.

When one is considering the reason for the neglect of the opera, it must be conceded that the libretto of Fedora is certainly an unholy mess. Although it was based on a drama by Victorien Sardou, also responsible for the original play of Tosca and one of Sarah Bernhardt’s favourite dramatists, either Sardou himself or the hapless librettist of this operatic adaptation has managed to render the convoluted twists and turns of the drama as clear as mud. The whole plot springs from the assassination of Fedora’s beloved-betrothed Count Vladimir, but the latter is first encountered when already fatally wounded and dies without uttering a single note, which leaves a gaping hole at the heart of Act One since the heroine’s adoration is never seen to be justified. She in turn succumbs – it seems almost immediately – to the blandishments of Count Loris, but in the event it transpires that this is simply a ruse to expose him as the killer, which means that their love music which forms the musical core of Act Two is fakery. When she discovers the truth about both her old and her new lovers, this is given to us in the form of a reported account, and this is followed by a further narration (this time at third hand) from the French consul in Paris. It appears that Loris, in the course of all this, is blissfully unaware that Fedora was ever betrothed to Vladimir, although it is never suggested that the engagement was kept secret; this makes him an even more unintelligent hero than Sardou’s Cavaradossi, especially as he fails to recognise until the last possible moment that the death of his brother and mother are the indirect result of Fedora’s intrigues with the Tsarist police. One can see why Bernhardt might have found the role of the heroine, with its contradictory emotions, rewarding to act on stage, and why the part might still attract operatic divas today; but the rest of the action has a sense of total unreality. The situation is worse compounded by the fact that the librettist Arturo Colautti has carefully preserved a whole raft of Sardou’s peripheral characters (Puccini’s librettists for Tosca took their pruning shears to these when making their adaptation of that play two years later) at the parties in St Petersburg and Paris, and none of these – including a concert pianist who gives us a mini-recital in Act Two – make the slightest impression either as characters or as dramatic presences.

This dramatic ineptitude leaves the weight of Fedora to be carried by the music, and to be honest this must surely be the only reason the opera has maintained even a toehold on the repertory. Some critics have complained that there is only one tune – the tenor’s ‘Amor ti vieta’ in Act Two – but in all fairness there are some other moments of melodic distinction such as the heroine’s ‘Son gente risoluta’ in Act One and a rather sinister intermezzo in Act Two which leads to an orchestral recapitulation of the tenor’s aria. Giordano shows a neat sense of deftness too in some of the extensive narrative sections, such as the passage where de Sirieux oscillates between serious discussion with Fedora and exchanging banter with the flirtatious Olga; but in general the richness of lyrical impulse which has ensured the survival of Andrea Chenier is in rather short supply – even ‘Amor ti vieta’ is decidedly short-winded, coming to a conclusion almost as soon as it has started.

The role of Fedora, lying as it does in a rather lower register than Tosca, has long attracted prima donnas in the twilight of their careers (and has even been essayed by mezzo-sopranos); Daniela Dessi was in her late fifties at the time of this recording, and she died of cancer in the following year. She does show one or two signs of fragility when approaching high notes, but in general she is in good voice and her dramatic involvement in the part brings the character to life even when she is receiving minimal assistance from Giordano’s music. This is a not unworthy testimony to a highly distinguished and wide-ranging operatic career. Her husband Fabio Armiliato is sturdy and forthright as Loris; he appeared with Dessi in a whole series of recordings of Verdi and Puccini operas (as well as Andrea Chenier), and their long experience together is clearly shown in their stage interactions. After that, the standard of singing drops away rather. Alfonso Antoniaozzi sounds worn and weary as de Sirieux, while by his side the pertness of Daria Kovalenko’s Olga becomes wearisome. The comprimario roles are taken with efficiency rather than engagement; even such a distinguished bass as Luigi Roni, well into his seventies at the time of this performance, is reduced to a mere shadow of the Commendatore we remember from Colin Davis’s Don Giovanni back in 1973. (The old Decca set featured the very young Kiri te Kanawa as Dimitri, as well as Pascal Rogé as the pianist Lazinski.) The chorus do not have a great deal to do, but manage what they have with some sense of style, and Valerio Galli elicits well-nuanced playing from his orchestra even when a few more violins might have been welcome.

The production by Rosetta Cucchi has some good ideas – the division of the scene in Act One into a series of lateral stage pictures concealed by sliding screens, for example, enables us to become more engaged with the dying Count Vladimir stretched out on the piano while the doctors try to save his life – but the sense of period, so essential in an opera clearly set in the last days of Tsarist Russia, is sadly and badly misjudged. The whole idea of ‘nihilists’ being imprisoned in a fortress on the Neva River, and the reported assassination attempts on the Tsar’s life, are undermined when during Act Two we are shown mimed sequences of trench warfare and then – during the interlude, when the love music returns – we are shown a posed vision which is obviously intended to recall the photographs taken of the Tsar’s family immediately before their execution (although the Tsar appears to have lost his beard), and to which Fedora reaches out her hands in a beseeching or consoling gesture. The latter image is tacky, but the World War One battle sequences – set with horrendously jarring effect to the dance music which opens the scene at a Parisian party – are a very serious misjudgement, quite apart from falsifying the milieu of the action. When in Act Three the costumes have clearly shifted forwards to the 1920s, with Fedora and Loris in exile in Switzerland, the whole business of the imprisonment and death of Loris’s brother becomes risibly unbelievable – and adds to the existing problems when the audience are asked to sympathise with yet another pair of offstage characters whom they have never encountered. And yet a further layer of confusion is added by the presence of Luca Alberti, credited as representing the ‘older Loris’, who sits at the front of the stage throughout all three Acts cradling a revolver. He then leaves the scene just before the end, to return again without the prop (in defiance of Chekov’s dictum that any firearm seen on the stage in Act One of a drama must be used by the end of the play). The meaning of this, if any, escapes me entirely; is this ‘older Loris’ supposed to be looking back from a yet later time, and if so to what purpose? I should add that the costume designs by Claudia Pernigotti are very handsome, although the sets by Tiziano Santi convey no sense of location as the action shifts from Russia to France and finally to Switzerland.

The booklet contains notes and synopsis in Italian and English only, but subtitles are also given in German, French, Japanese and Korean. The English subtitles are utilitarian rather than elegant, but do manage to keep the plot developments clear. I have not seen either of the alternative DVDs of the opera, but both the 1993 La Scala production and that from the New York Met in 1997 apparently adhered to the original period and scenario; both feature Freni and Domingo in the leading roles, and would seem to be a more satisfactory visual representation of what will always remain a problematic opera.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson (Blu-ray) ~ Göran Forsling (CD)



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