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Phenomenal performances rescue flawed Fedora

The Kennedy Center Opera House
10/24/1998 -  and 29 November 1, 4, 9, 14, 17, 20, 1998
Umberto Giordano : Fedora
Plácido Domingo (Count Loris Ipanov), Mirella Freni (Princess Fedora Romazov), Richard Stilwell De Siriex), Judith Howarth (Countess Olga Sukarev), Robert Baker (Désiré), James Shaffran (Nicola), Patrick Sobolik (Sergio), Patricia Wulf (Dimitri), Jay Baylon (Gretch), Chris Owens (Lorek), Yanni Yannissis (Cirillo), David B. Morris (Michele), Corey Evan Rotz (Baron Rouvel), Robert Gardener (Borov), Rachel Robinson (a peasant child).
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Opera Chorus, Roberto Abbado, conductor

The Washington Opera opened what is being touted as its most spectacular season ever at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday night with Lamberto Puggelli's la Scala production of Giordano's Fedora. The audience was glittery, the cast was starry, only the opera itself kept the evening from blossoming into excellence.

leaves the impression that it is a inexpert pastiche of other opera's. The nondescript score is evocative of, though certainly not equal to, Puccini. The silly libretto is a patchwork of every operatic cliché imaginable peppered with obvious grafts from other works. The hero sheds copious tears over the poor sick mother he left behind, the tragic heroine's coquettish sidekick provides lighthearted comic relief, the diva languishes on her death bed for twenty minutes after downing a draught of instantaneous poison. Act III, which finds the lovers reveling in bucolic bliss until the woman's dark secret from the city they've left behind destroys them, is practically a crib from La Rondine.

As everyone familiar with opera knows, cliché alone is not enough to prevent a story from being interesting. The real problem with Fedora is that everything of importance is communicated through letters, or happens during intermission. The action on stage is restricted to reaction. This severely limits the ability of the audience to become sufficiently emotionally involved with the characters to suspend disbelief. Count Vladimir, Princess Fedora's fiancée whose life and death is the impetus for the scenario, is only seen being carried across the stage with a bullet in his chest. The reason for Fedora's devotion to him is indicated by a love song she sings to his photograph. His underlying despicable character is illustrated by the talk of his servants, and the contents of letters. In the intermission between Act's I and II, Fedora calculatedly entrances Count Loris, the man accused of murdering her beloved, and develops conflicted feelings for him. The death of Loris' brother and mother, which brings about the requisite death and destruction of happiness, is communicated by a third party. This consistent indirect approach to already hackneyed events renders the opera a rather ludicrous affair.

Worse than the opera itself is this production. The action takes place on a one-level revolve, which turns very slowly, but distractingly, through most of the show. The furniture, backdrops, and costumes are various shades of gloom. This relentless monochromism is alleviated slightly in Act II. Ms. Freni’s gorgeous peacock and gold gown and a decidedly sickly looking palm tree around which the room revolves provide some contrast there. The most remarkable feature of the production is the designers ability to make the set seem simultaneously too sparse and too cluttered. The locations are established by backdrops of what look like charcoal drawings or woodcuts. Making up for the lack of set is an enormous amount of furniture. Act II in particular was so littered with chairs that one momentarily wondered how the Fedora characters had wandered into a Ionesco play.

A potentially wearying evening was redeemed by a truly phenomenal cast that managed to wring as much interest and emotional impact as possible from this basically unsatisfying drama. Washington Opera Artistic Director Plácido Domingo turns in yet another vocally magnificent and impassioned performance as the murderer-hero Loris. His voice is thrilling, and completely secure. His characterization is sensitive and fervent. Purists my argue that he's not the singer he was twenty years ago. But given that he still consistently delivers more compelling vocal performances than almost any other tenor singing today, this must be regarded as quibbling.

Mirella Freni has been called the last diva, her performance as Fedora both bears this out, and makes one desperately hope it is not in fact true. She looks and sounds simply glorious. A small stumble and some fumbling with props might have betrayed a touch of opening night nerves, but the voice is as rich and controlled as one could hope. Her acting is in the traditional stylized gesture mode, but she understands how to use this method for maximum impact. Her bearing is authentically regal, which adds danger to her anger, charm to her passion, and pathos to her death scene, which in less expert hands could easily be laughable. The sheer magnitude of Ms. Freni's presence has the effect of elevating weak material to her exalted level. Any divette who aspires to graduate should take a lesson.

Even the smaller roles are extremely well cast. Richard Stillwell captures both the bubbly French charm and sincere concern required of De Siriex. His superior acting enhances every scene of which he is a part, and he sings marvelously, particularly in his toe-tapping "Russian Woman" aria. Judith Howarth is delightful as De Siriex’s female foil, the Countess Olga Sukarev. Her bright edged soprano gives her champagne aria real sparkle. Bass Yanni Yannissis is excellent in his limited role as Cyril the coachman. His voice conveys a pleasantly appropriate Russian quality, though he is a Greek singing in Italian. Patricia Wulf is convincing as the boy Dimitri, and Jay Baylon is an imposing police inspector Gretch.

It is only by the extraordinary talent of this ensemble of artists that this production is redeemed. One hopes the other star casts that the Washington Opera has assembled for this season don't have to work quite so hard.

MK Blackwood



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