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Fall Preview : Opera

A Haunting Timeliness to 'Fedora'

Review: L.A. Opera season opens with the tale of an ill-fated princess.

September 05, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

L.A. Opera has climbed up into the attic and blown the dust off an old relic to begin the new fall season. Yet--stroke of fate!--it was an old relic that seemed newly relevant Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In Umberto Giordano's "Fedora," written just under 100 years ago, a glamorous princess, unlucky in love, acts carelessly and dies tragically.

"Fedora" is often looked down upon in the standard opera sources for its gloppy tunes, its old-fashioned harmonies and its heavy melodrama. It was a fairly popular success in its day, when an Italian audience had a rich appetite for realism and lots of thick emotion on the lyric stage, for Bohemians in Paris, the French Revolution and circus clowns who murder their wives.

It was a time, in other words, not entirely unlike our own, when a century was turning, and insecurity and anxiety was the prevailing spirit of the age, despite a fascination with technology and progress. The rich indulged in decadence. A really good sob story, with lots of local color, was the ideal diversion. They called it verismo. Today it just sounds like the movies.

"Fedora" is a young man's opera--Giordano was 30 when he wrote it. (Two years earlier, he had produced his one opera that has tenaciously clung to the repertory, "Andrea Chenier"; everything else from his remaining 50 years is forgotten.) And "Fedora" has a young man's fascination with the world around him. The blending is handled with a skill that might serve as useful model for some of today's young composers making CNN opera.

Based on a play by Victorien Sardou (who also wrote "Tosca"), which was a favored vehicle of Sarah Bernhardt, "Fedora" is full of the sensationalism of the newspapers of a century ago (Shaw called it all "Sardoodledom"). The Russian princess Fedora Romanzoff, a wealthy widow, seeks revenge for the murder (she suspects nihilists) of her new fiance, learns later that the fiance was a cad having an affair with killer's wife and was interested only in her money, falls in love with said killer, and then takes poison for reasons only an operagoer is ready to believe.

The scenes are full of glamour--St. Petersburg and Parisian high society, an idyllic Swiss Alpine retreat. The opera is peppered with modernisms--an electric bell, a bicycle aria, a Chopin impersonator--and Russian, French, Polish and Swiss music. Giordano's greatest ability, however, is not so much the local color or those wrenching (and sometimes wretched) romantic outbursts of love or hate or remorse or grief, but his ability to compose intricate and complex scenes in which several levels of drama (particularly at parties) occur at once.

*

There is room for extravagance here, certainly more than found its way onto the L.A. Opera stage. The production, imported from La Scala, does not sit well on the Pavilion stage. Louisa Spinatelli's unit set contains an ornate, columned mock proscenium, a large glassy aerie, a central circular plate on which period furniture is placed and which revolves slowly like a restaurant atop a hotel, and some gray slides in the background to indicate the setting.

The production originally conceived by Lamberto Puggelli and realized here by David Edwards, is without ideas, and relies simply on a respectable cast and conductor to bring the opera to life. Instead, they make it merely respectable.

The one wild card is the soprano, Maria Ewing, who sings Fedora. She is an unpredictable singer, and we are never quite sure what will come out each time she opens her mouth. Sometimes it's a rushing torrent, sometimes strangely broken phrases (one note secure, the next not), sometimes high notes simply aren't there at all. Vocal uncertainly is not an ideal way to generate dramatic vulnerability, certainly, but Ewing works with what she's got these days, and she works with an unerring theatrical instinct. She may have toned down some of her more feral mannerisms too much, one expected of her a few more of those sweeping Bernhardt gestures that she is more than capable of, but her ability to convey nobility confused by love, was powerful.

"Fedora" is at the Music Center mainly because Placido Domingo likes to sing Count Loris Ipanov (Caruso did, too), who kills for love and thinks of nothing but Fedora and his mother and brother. It is not a role to challenge Domingo dramatically (or vocally) at this stage of his illustrious career, and in it he appears as his usual pillar of strength. It is hard not be impressed by Domingo's seeming invincibility, and next to him Ewing appeared all the more fragile. But he has also become so much the tasteful, consummate professional that he can seem predictable without better material and stronger direction.

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