Fedora: A Good Bad Opera


One critic wrote about Sarah Bernhardt's portrayal of Fedora: "Sardou's Fedora, the strongest drama written in recent years, with Sarah Bernhardt as the heroine--a character unquestionably suggested by the eccentric French actress's remarkable skill in the simulation of conflicting passions--presents a combination of ingenuity, constructive and dramatic eloquence that is not likely to be equaled on the stage within the knowledge of playgoers now living."

Act 2 of Fedora, photo @Ken Howard
Last night I saw the Met's new production of Umberto Giordano's Fedora and reread this critic and wondered what got lost in transit between the play (by Victorien Sardou) and the operatic adaptation (libretto by Arturo Colautti). Because the opera comes across as a fun, intermittently entertaining soap opera but nothing more. 

There's no emotional buy-in for the opera's melodramatic plot. Characters are dropped onstage, and their backstory and motivations are often understood with a letter, or a line or two of dialogue. For instance, Fedora's whole motivation for becoming a honey-pot spy is to avenge her beloved late fiancé Vladimir. But we never see Vladimir with Fedora. By the time they are onstage together, Vladimir is mortally wounded. Director David McVicar attempts to offset this by having a ghost Vladimir trail Fedora through the opera. But that just makes clumsy dramaturgy even more artificial.

Fedora, photo @ Ken Howard
The central love story between Fedora and Loris similarly has no development. One minute Fedora is writing a letter to the police chief to snitch on Loris, the next she's begging him to spend the night because they're in love (for real!). He explains why he killed Vladimir in a few lines of dialogue (Vladimir was having an affair with Loris's wife), and Fedora is convinced. In the next act, Loris gets a letter (yet another letter!) informing him about his brother and mother's death. Fedora swallows poison. Curtains. Thankfully it's short -- less than 2 and a half hours even with a long intermission.

It's all plot mechanics without any character development. If you think about the classic verismo operas, there is melodrama yes, but there's also character development. For instance, in the oft-maligned Adriana Lecouvreur, there is a long scene where Adriana and Principessa come to realize they are in love with the same man and this leads to a catfight between the two women. The story is allowed to breathe before the next plot mechanism.

Umberto Giordano's score reminds me of the soundtrack to one of those 1930's MGM costume dramas -- lush, melodic, but it stays in the background. It didn't grab me. The opera's big hit tune "Amor ti vieta" is really a 2 minute aria that in full context comes and goes without much fanfare. The two duets between Fedora and Loris are more meaty, but as I said, the music stays in the background. Even the protracted death scene has little emotional impact. The music doesn't pop out and grab you. It's empty calories.


Yoncheva, Feola, Meachem photo @ Ken Howard
The review about Sardou's Fedora praises Sarah Bernhardt's "wonderful powers of expression ... her genius lends lustre to even the mere colloquial passages of the text." There are videos of Bernhardt acting where the gestures are so over-the-top that one suspects the actress's overwhelming charisma swept audiences and critics along. The opera's Fedora needs such a singing actress.

Unfortunately, Sonya Yoncheva is not that singer. She has a lovely, plush voice and a dignified, feminine stage presence. The role does not really tax her upper register, which can sound unsteady. But the over-the-top passions are not in her toolbox. She comes across as sensible, and `just doesn't seem like someone would would impulsively drink poison hidden in her cross necklace. Her lack of a strong lower register contributes to this -- in the many declamatory passages which dip into almost a growl, she simply didn't have the chest voice to sound authoritative.

The character of Loris is more of a cardboard character. Beloved tenor Piotr Beczala is still stylish, still cuts a romantic, dashing figure onstage, and his voice blends well with Yoncheva's. The character is very thin, however, and didn't give Beczala much to do. I can't wait to see him as Lohengrin later this season.


Act 2 of Fedora, photo @ Ken Howard
The two most tuneful numbers actually belonged to the ditzy Olga -- the champagne aria in Act 2 and bicycle aria in Act 3 might have been frivolous, but they were fun. Rosa Feola (Olga) was winning and charming, her voice warm and sweet. Lucas Meachem (de Siriex) has a mellifluous baritone. I also really enjoyed Jeongcheol Cha as Cirillo.  His aria "Egli mi disse" in Act 1 was brief but what a voice! Marco Armiliato did his usual solid work in the pit. He's a routinier, but this opera doesn't need a Furtwangler.

Sir David McVicar is unavoidable at the Met nowadays -- almost every new production is given to him. He did well with Fedora -- the sets and costumes had the look of an Irving Thalberg prestige picture. The set for Act 2 was so opulent it even got the scenery applause treatment. McVicar kept actual directions to a minimum -- all the sighing and dramatics was downstage center. The only conceit that did not work was ghost Vladimir trailing Fedora throughout the opera.

I've seen several reviews decry the "snobbery" that leads critics to dismiss melodramatic verismo works like Fedora. For operas like Adriana Lecouvreur or Andrea Chenier the snobbery charge is justified. What's not to love about those operas? They are very fun, well-crafted, engaging operas with the right singers. But for Fedora? It's simply not a very good opera. At most, it's a good bad opera.

Comments

  1. You are too kind - Fedora, unlike Chenier, is a crappy opera. I did however in my youth see it actually work but it was in the hands of the great Magda Olivero who know how to make it sizzle because she so intensely believed in it or at least, made one believe she believed.

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  2. Who was the critic you quoted at the beginning?

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  3. You are much too kind. Unlike Andrea Chenier, Fedora is really a crappy opera. Do make it work you must have someone who truly believes in it, or at least gives the impression that she does. In my youth, I witnessed this in the incomparable Magda Olivero who could make high art out of trash. I did enjoy this broadcast however - once past Act 1. I will see it soon.

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  4. I do love that duet! A great actress can make the opera a tour do force.

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  5. Still, a guilty pleasure.

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  6. Considering the average old age of Met goers ( myself included) I think it was an uphill battle for Yoncheva because the memories of the late Mirella Freni remain fresh in our minds and ears. Yes, it is unfair and am stuck in the past.

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  7. For fun pretend you LOATHED Fedora, which shouldn't be that difficult.
    Anxiously waiting!

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