Thursday, October 8, 2009

Puccini's Edgar: Complete At Last!

This one starts off rough, but allow me to offer three words of advice: Stick with it.

This performance begins fairly lackluster, with singing that is, quite frankly (and brutally) terrible, particularly from the two prima donnas, Amarilli Nizza and Julia Gertseva. The men (Jose Cura as Edgar, Marco Vratogna as Frank and Carlo Cigni as Gualtiero) fair considerably better.

For whatever reasons (and keeping with the current "update" trend) Lorenzo Mariani moves the action up - SIX HUNDRED YEARS - so instead of a medieval tale of lust, blood and redemption, the whole thing looks very "Sunday in the Park With George" - in fact, the unit set is a lush, long grassed expanse like a meadow or unkempt park, steeply raked to appear hilly and fitted with enormous columns giving the feeling of a field near a courtyard. It's lovely to look at and . . . eventually, makes a terrific setting.

If you think you know Edgar well, (as I did), you're wrong. This is the original four act version that received only three performances - at La Scala in April 1889, was declared a failure, and put away never to be heard again, except in a variety of truncated three act versions. The Fourth act is a revelation and consists primarily of a nearly half an hour of music for Edgar and Fidelia - an almost Wagnerian length duet, broken up with asides, choruses - pumping out an array of explosive emotions ranging from the tenderness and elation of love, to the crowds howling at the villainess as she's dragged off to the executioner's sword. It is thrilling.

The second act is slightly laughable - where I've always imagined a filthy 14th century orgy worthy of Hieronymus Bosch what we see is the same grassy park of act one but now with those circular Victorian-era sofas each wrapped around the columns of the first act. The woman are ghastly gotten up in bloomers and elaborate bustiers, their hair piled high a la "Gibson Girl" - and a sextette of them are donned up in Eartha Kit Catwoman masks and long red opera gloves. The whole thing feels like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas decided to mount The Merry Widow. Julia Gertseva, gorgeous to look at vocally not at all impressive in Act I, here reveals a sizeable high mezzo, with amazingly free top notes, the voice sailing through Puccini's "big girl" music with no fears. In black and red, with a kind of silly tiara, she creates a fascinating, deceptively shallow creature that is one part Lady Macbeth, two parts Thais. (When Edgar abruptly stops making love to her when he hears the military trumpets, you can throw in one part of Carmen, too!). The scenario is a tough one to fall for, but by this point you just have to go with it.

The glory of Edgar is its third act, Puccini's stunningly beautiful Requiem, and everything goes right here (even if it looks like a scene from Jane Eyre or Bleak House). The chorus is terrific, the children's chorus touching and effective and most of all, Amarilli Nizza makes you forget her awkward first act by giving a performance that is soul searing. Her "Addio, mio dolce amor" lets out all the stops, and the glory of her voice - a free and remarkably thrilling top - gives gooseflesh. She dominates the ensemble that follows and her second aria over the shouts of Edgar and the villagers, as she defends the memory of the man all believe dead, before she and the others leave for home, is infinitely moving.

Tigrana's reappearance - to pay her respects, grieve and make her first attempt at prayer - is fouled by being set up and horribly taunted by Edgar and Frank, before she gives in to their offer to betray Edgar's memory. Edgar's revelation provokes another response entirely from the reassembled crowd and the act ends in a moment that is as theatrically compelling and musically thrilling as anything else Puccini was to give us over the ensuing decades. It is a phenomenal moment and a great curtain bringer downer.

The final act opens with Fidelia in her wedding veil, kneeling under and embracing the flowering almond tree she fell in love with Edgar. She has been keeping vigil and the aria about her dream of marrying Edgar in heaven - which on paper sounds almost comically naive - is simply beautiful as handled b Ms. Nizza. Carlo Cigni's Gualtiero's rich, beautiful bass baritone soars beautifully over the chorus in his prayer. Marco Vratogna doesn't get a lot to do as Frank, but his actorly presence is strongly felt throughout each act and when he sings, it's with an impressive voice.

Jose Cura has a major success as Edgar, this performance finding him mostly in glorious voice - the top notes exciting and every once in a while a gleaming hint of squillo creeps in that made me go "oh yeah!." He croons a bit in some of the softer music, sounding like he's coming in for a rough spot at the end of one of his duets with Fidelia. (To her credit Nizza, who sounded as though prepared to hold onto that note duet for eternity, cuts it off short like a true stage partner).

Yoram David leads an a sometimes clunky, but mostly spirited and beautiful performance from the Teatro Regio Torino forces. There are moments that feel under-rehearsed or not thought too much about, for instance he doesn't really milk some of the Requiem music which cries at times for a more expansive reading while here it can be just a bit foursquare. But, mostly he gets it right and the biggest moments ring out with a feverish passion that a work like this needs.

The accompanying pamphlet gives a nice article about the work. Of immense interest is how Linda Fairtile had been trying to re-orchestrate the fourth act, believed to either have been destroyed or forever lost, from Ricordi's piano-only version, when she was approached by Puccini's granddaughter, who brought with her the entire full score which hadn't been seen in 121 years!

I've been a bit surprised a discovery of this magnitude wasn't more publicized, but this is a unique - and downright weird - opera, but don't let that put you off. And don't give up after Act 1 - it's so very, very worth sticking with it!


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