Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Puccini: Edgar (RAI Trade, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to take the opportunity to run a relatively long DVD I had just got: the world premiere recording of the original 1889 version of Puccini’s second opera, Edgar. Puccini had had a modest success with his first opera, Le Villi (based on the same German folk tale as Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, dealing with a nobleman’s son who loves and abandons a commoner, only to find in the second act that she’s changed into a Willi, a spirit who reaches from beyond the grave and has her revenge by dancing him to death) and had been signed by the most powerful Italian music publisher, Ricordi. With Verdi, Ricordi’s greatest gold mine near the end of his career (and his life), Giulio Ricordi heard Le Villi and decided Puccini was the most likely successor and gave him a long-term contract that included commissioning another opera with the same librettist as Puccini had used on Le Villi, Ferdinando Fontana.

That was the biggest mistake; Fontana, much more a poet than a man of the theatre, picked a French verse play by Alfred de Musset (a contemporary of Chopin and the lover of George Sand just before she jilted him for Chopin) called La Coupe et les Lèvres, which means “The Cup and the Lips” — a title whose basis in the play, whatever it may have been, didn’t carry over to the opera. The piece tells the tale of Edgar, a knight in 13th century Flanders, who in the opening scene is torn between two lovers, a good girl named Fidelia and a bad girl named Tigrana. (The symbolism in their character names is entirely too obvious.) Edgar is in love with Fidelia and she’s in love with him, while Fidelia’s brother Frank — Edgar’s best friend — has the hots for Tigrana, but Tigrana only wants Edgar and seeks to break him and Fidelia up so she can get him on the rebound. The pious citizens of Flanders sing a religious song on their way to church; Tigrana mocks them and Edgar unexpectedly comes to her defense, getting so flustered that he burns down his own house (it’s been in his family for generations but he’s decided he’s tired of it and the generational obligations it represents) and leaves town with Tigrana.

That’s Act I; Act II takes place in Tigrana’s bordello, where she and Edgar have been living in sin in more ways than one; Edgar is bored with debauchery, however, and when an army marches through town captained by Edgar’s friend Frank (ya remember Frank?), Edgar decides to join it and marches off. Act III takes place back in the town where it all opened; Edgar has been killed in battle — or at least so everyone thinks — and the townspeople are staging his funeral and coming forward to talk about how he died a hero in combat saving Flanders from the occupying French (though the dialogue in Act II had suggested he was actually fighting on the French side). A mysterious stranger wearing a monk’s habit crashes the funeral and starts denouncing Edgar as a debauchee and a murderer, and of course he turns out to be Edgar himself, not dead after all. The rest of the crowd turns against Edgar but Fidelia stands up for him and she agrees to marry him, and then Tigrana bursts onto the scene and swears vengeance as the curtain falls.

Act IV takes place on the morning of Edgar’s and Fidelia’s wedding day; they sing a long love duet (containing a scrap of music Puccini later recycled for the “Amaro sol per te” duet in Act III of Tosca) and it looks like they’re going to get to live happily ever after when suddenly Tigrana appears again and stabs Fidelia; she gets a few dying notes and expires, leading Edgar bereft as the last-act curtain falls. Edgar is a ridiculously melodramatic story that makes utterly no sense — Il Trovatore looks like hard-edged realism by comparison — and it’s also reminiscent of all too many other operas, not only Carmen (the most obvious antecedent and the one usually pointed to by critics) but also Tannhäuser and Traviata.

But the biggest problem with Edgar is its lack of any really memorable tunes; Fidelia’s big arias at the start of act three come close, but there’s nothing here on the level of the great arias from Puccini’s next (and star-making) opera, Manon Lescaut, or any of his work after that. It had occurred to me that maybe Puccini’s and Fontana’s mistake was basing their opera on a French story — but then I remembered that Puccini’s next three operas, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, all based on French stories, were smash hits. Edgar just sort of pokes along, filled with pleasant music that doesn’t really rise to the thundering melodramatics of the story, and one of its problems is that — unlike Bizet, who in Carmen was clearly far more interested in the bad girl than the good girl — Puccini was clearly more interested in Fidelia than Tigrana.

For the rest of his career Puccini avoided villainesses until his final opera, Turandot (he did seek the opera rights to Pierre Louÿs’ The Woman and the Puppet, filmed in 1934 by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil is a Woman and in 1977 by Luis Buñuel as That Obscure Object of Desire, but based on his failure to bring Tigrana to any sort of life it’s probably just as well this was one story Puccini didn’t get to set: he was as temperamentally wrong to adapt this story as Sternberg was right) — and while Turandot is a rich and vivid creation, even though Puccini didn’t live long enough to compose the ending in which she was supposed to discover love and reform, Tigrana is not; she mostly sings the same soaring, lyrical melodies as Fidelia and only a few sinister strains from the orchestra whenever she enters mark her as any different from her goody-good rival in love. Fidelia is really the beta version of all Puccini’s star-crossed heroines — Manon, Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly, Angelica, Liù — the ones who love not wisely but too well and are done in by disease, politics or culture at the end — and it’s not surprising that even though this is the only Puccini opera (aside from his one-act comedy Gianni Schicchi) named after its male lead, it’s Fidelia who gets the best music.

The original version of Edgar lasted only three performances at La Scala in 1889. Puccini, whose inveterate tinkering with his operas made him a precursor of George Lucas (who was once asked by a New Yorker reporter when he would be finished revising the Star Wars movies, and he answered, “When I die”), revised it in 1891, dropping the dramatically irrelevant fourth act and moving the climax — Tigrana’s murder of Fidelia — to the end of the third. He tweaked it again a couple of times and in 1905 finally arrived at a version that satisfied him, more or less, and it’s usually the 1905 version that’s heard today on the rare occasions Edgar is performed at all. This DVD, filmed at the Teatro Regio in Torino (Turin) in 2008 in a co-production with the opera house in Bologna, is the first recording in any format of the original 1889 version. It was originally supposed to be a reconstruction by Puccini scholar Linda Fairtile, who was set to work on her own orchestration of Act IV from the surviving piano-vocal score, but Simonetta Puccini, the composer’s granddaughter, suddenly surprised Fairtile and the musical world in general by announcing that the original orchestral score survived, and she had it.

The production was staged by Lorenzo Mariani, who decided to move the action up from 13th century Flanders to 19th century Italy in the middle of the wars over the Risorgimento — though the countries involved in the war Edgar goes off to fight (and is thought to have lost his life in) are still named Flanders and France, and in the opening act Tigrana’s presence in the Flemish village is explained by her having been part of a caravan which passed through town when she was a girl; everyone else in the caravan died of plague and she, as the only survivor, was taken in and raised collectively by the townspeople. This is a very anachronistic plot device for the 19th century!

The cast and the conductor, Yoram David, are good but not great; he rather plods through a score that could have used more oomph. His Fidelia, Amarilli Nizza, not only has the best music but is the strongest singer in the cast, reminiscent of Mirella Freni in her delicate balance between fragility and strength. The Edgar is José Cura, who made a splash in the 1990’s as a tenor specializing in the heavier Italian roles; he’s made up to bear an odd resemblance to Puccini himself and his voice, though a bit ragged, portrays the strength of the character but is less up to the burden of depicting his neuroses. Tigrana is Julia Gertseva, who’s electrifying visually in the red dress she wears throughout — as if her name wasn’t enough to tell us she was the bad girl, director Mariani introduces her leaning under a tree at the Flemish picnic ground eating an apple, thereby tying her in with Eve and the original “bad girl” — but she can’t make the character convincing because Puccini’s music for her is just too lyrical, too nice, not seductive enough. (Compare to the great songs of seduction Bizet gave Carmen — the “Habañera,” “Séguidilla,” “Chanson bohème” — and the overall greater sophistication Bizet brought to the task of dramatizing “that kind of girl.”) The lower-voiced men — Marco Vratogna as Frank and Carlo Cigni as Gualtiero, father of Fidelia and Frank — are competent without being spectacular.

The set designs are bizarre; the picnic ground in the first and fourth act looks relatively credible but the same patch of grass that forms the ground also appears in act two as the floor of Tigrana’s whorehouse (the one the restive Edgar, like Tannhäuser, dreams of escaping — only not only did Puccini fail to give Tigrana any music rivaling Carmen, he didn’t give Edgar an angst aria at the level of “Die Töne löb” or “Inbrunst im Herzen” either) — and though the Fanfare magazine reviewer, Raymond Tuttle, thought it looked like artificial grass it seemed like real sod to me (which would explain why they didn’t want to remove it between acts).

One quirky thing about Edgar may help explain why Puccini decided to set a story that was not only fundamentally silly but also not in accord with his usual dramatic interests. Puccini was the seventh in a line of composers in his family who had taken up the musical torch generation after generation, but most of the previous musical Puccinis had written almost exclusively religious music (though in the 1970’s the Musical Heritage Society issued a quite nice, very Mozartean piano concerto by Domenico Puccini, Giacomo’s grandfather), and it’s possible that in forsaking the church for the theatre and writing mostly operas Puccini was setting himself up for the same sort of frustration with the burden of his ancestors that leads Edgar to burn down his house at the end of Act I. What’s more, the libretto of Edgar frequently calls on Puccini to supply church music — composed to texts in Latin (which are left that way in the subtitles) even though the bulk of the opera is in Italian — and the religious choruses in Edgar (including one for an off-stage women’s chorus referred to in the credits of the DVD as “voci bianchi” — “white voices”) are among the more impressive parts of the score, proof that had Puccini followed in his ancestors’ footsteps instead of staging his Edgar-like rebellion and going secular, he might have been quite a good church composer. (He actually used a student piece, a “Te Deum,” for the cantata Tosca is performing in Act II of her opera.)

Aside from that, however, Edgar is a sporadically interesting piece that shows Puccini’s gift for lyricism but rarely his gift for music drama — and here it’s given a competent but not great performance that’s historically interesting but hardly a spectacular night of operatic entertainment. Incidentally, this morning I was listening to the revision of Edgar in a 1980 broadcast from the Wexford Festival — alas, a hissy recording that didn’t do justice to the piece or Puccini’s orchestration — and the revised version is tighter, considerably shorter (about 100 minutes instead of the 157 minutes of the “complete”) but not otherwise much different — he may have recomposed scattered parts of the opera but he didn’t radically rethink it the way Verdi rethought I Lombardi as Jérusalem or Stiffelio as Aroldo. Edgar isn’t one of those neglected operas that deserves a place in the standard repertoire — this isn’t a spectacular rediscovery on the order of Mefistofele (I will never forget the shock I had, after years of reading the patronizing crap that had been written about Arrigo Boïto as composer — that he was untalented, that he had good ideas for opera but needed a musical genius like Verdi to realize them — and then listening to Mefistofele start-to-finish for the first time and being utterly blown away by the power, drama, scope and force of the piece, finally deciding it was a neglected masterpiece and the best Italian opera ever written by anyone other than Verdi or Puccini — though Bellini’s Norma comes close) but a sporadically interesting opera given a sporadically interesting production by solidly professional performers who make a good case for it.