Edgar – my 500th opera

27 Oct

I turn 50 at the end of this year and I had an ambition of taking the tally of individual operas that I have seen to 500 by that date.  On 25th October, in Lewes Town Hall, I achieved this with Sussex Opera’s performance of Puccini’s Edgar.

I had slightly mixed feelings about this.  I admire Puccini, but he’s certainly not my favourite composer and Edgar has a reputation of being seriously bad.  If a 500th opera is to be special, I felt that I’d rather it should be something that rich and rare, perhaps that I enjoy listening to the CDs – La Muette de Portici, perhaps, or I Lombardi (that and Jérusalem being the only Verdi’s that I haven’t seen) or Beatrice di Tenda, or (though I think it would be quite hard work) Sullivan’s IvanhoeRobert le Diable or La donna del lago would have been great, too.  However, I don’t control the programming decisions of opera houses or their timetables and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of seeing Edgar, particularly the first UK performance of the original four act version. It turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I expected.

It’s not a masterpiece.  It isn’t even a good opera, but it does have enjoyable things in it, together with the interest of seeing a young composer engaging with the form.

Let’s get the problems out of the way.  The libretto is not good – it’s not an impossible story for an opera (bored hero has to choose between the innocent Fidelia and the vicious but alluring Tigrana chooses the latter, regrets it and returns, after faking his death to Fidelia, who is then murdered by the vengeful Tigrana) – and has strong melodrama.  But Fontana’s libretto doesn’t establish the Fidelia/Edgar relationship well enough in the first act, while the character of Edgar himself isn’t strongly enough drawn early enough.

The third act is bizarre. It’s intended as a sort of love-test.  Edgar, having faked his death, disguised as a monk tries to blacken his own name.  He is defended by Fidelia and moved by her genuine grief. He then sees Tigrana’s passionate  sorrow and decides to test her by bribing her to confirm his own treachery.  Because she is an atheistical villainess, he succeeds.  The populace then try to desecrate the coffin, only to find that it’s empty, whereupon Edgar reveals himself and the crowd turn on Tigrana. It’s improbable and naively managed but, most of all, Puccini just didn’t at that stage have the skill to make this convincing musically.  The transfer from what struck me as a rather fine and passionate aria for Tigrana (a really strong contrast to the also strong for Fidelia) to a rather silly and unconvincing trio just does not work.

Most of all, the music isn’t quite good enough.  Some pleasant enough arias and duets outstay their welcome and Puccini, at this stage of his career, doesn’t have the sheer theatrical know-how to compose the right amount of music for entrances (usually too much) or to find the memorable phrase or melody that pins you to your seat or makes the tears flow.  I listened to La gioconda after hearing this to check out the influence of Ponchielli’s teaching and heard a lot of it there – including the more conventional Verdian parts of this score (a good old “stand to the front and sing” section of the Act I finale that he’d never have had later on).  The opera’s also a bit long: with a single interval, we were out in just under three and a quarter hours – he learned to be more concise later.

Having said that, I suspect that the original version is better than the later versions, which must have accentuated the silly melodrama.  I can see why he might want to cut much of Act IV – it goes on a bit – but it does at least provide some distance from the ridiculousness of Act III and has a sweet aria for Fidelia and a decent, if over-long, love duet for Edgar and Fidelia.

Moreover, there are plenty of pointers to the Puccini that was to come. The orchestration is beguiling, filled with ideas (perhaps too many, but it’s grateful stuff to listen to). The arias and duets are nice if not memorable.  There’s some good melodrama: Tigrana has a fiery entrance that remind you how good Puccini was at establishing a character at such moments (think of Scarpia).  It makes for an amusing enough evening but not one that makes you want to see the piece again – though I think, if I’d been there in 1889, I’d have wanted to hear Puccini’s next work.

The performance was semi-staged and did its best in the conditions available.  The chorus, dressed in black, looked cramped as the shuffled on and off stage.  The singers carried scores and showed varying degrees of willingness to be without them. Tony Baker did a decent enough job in moving the characters in a small space so we could get a sense of the plot. The company’s new surtitle machine worked intermittently.  I imagine it will all look better in the larger venues that it’s visiting in the next few days and I hope they solve the surtitle problem.

The soloists were strong within these confines.  John Hudson can deliver the style and a grateful, pleasing sound even if I felt his current vocal resources and attachment to the score didn’t really help him show the role in its best light. He looked like a rather slow academic bachelor uncle rather than a passionate, conflicted young man.  Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers seized Tigrana with both fists and shook everything out of it – just what the role needs.  I thought she sang her Act III aria wonderfully and injected the sort of passion that the piece needs to make it work.  Mary Plazas was a sweet and very simple Fidelia who sang her arias and duets with real beauty and a lovely sense of style – it’s impressive that NSO can get her.  Pauls Putnins made a handsome Frank who sang his aria strongly but wasn’t able to do much with a character that pretty much disappears after Act I.  Stephen Holloway was excellent as Gualtiero, father to Fidelia and Frank.

Nicholas Jenkins conducted with certainty and, I thought, a strong idea of how the score should go – perhaps the tempi were occasionally a bit deliberate, but he managed the difficult acoustic really well.  The St Pauls Sinfonia played idiomatically and gave lots of pleasure.  As to the chorus: well, it’s meant to be the basis of NSO and I suppose that it sang decently enough, though not, honestly, at the level of the soloists.  I would also be worried at what looked like a very, well, mature male section.  It’s not just that some younger voices might give it some much-needed ballast, it’s that you had the feeling that, in a few years’ time, there wouldn’t be anyone left.  Surely there are more younger people in Sussex with the interest and time to give to this.

So I enjoyed myself and it turned out to be a worthwhile 500th opera.  I’m not sure I’d go to see Edgar again unless the ROH were to invite a really good cast to have go at it (Kaufmann would be wonderful with Gheorghui as Fidelia, perhaps Antonacci or whoever is the reigning Lady Macbeth or Abigaille as Tigrana), but all credit to NSO for at least giving me the chance to see it once.



Sent from my iPad


2 Responses to “Edgar – my 500th opera”

  1. Narsufin October 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for posting this (and congratulations on hitting 500 operas, quite a landmark and one that certainly qualifies your opinion!) I was very interested to read this review as I’m seeing the NSO’s final rendition of Edgar at the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne on November 11th. I’m especially looking forward to hearing the soloists, and if an amateur chorus like the NSO can provide a “decent enough” performance alongside such heavy-weights then I know I will be in for a very pleasant evening.

  2. Vecchio John November 12, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    I would certainly go to that dream cast at the ROH! I went to the Eastbourne performance and thye had obviously hit their stride by then. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

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