The Metropolitan Opera must count December 2022 as one of the worst times of its nearly 140-year existence. First, illness robbed its Aïda production of two of its biggest stars, then a devastating cyber-attack temporarily wiped out all of the organization’s computer systems. Though no operas were canceled, tickets sales became nearly impossible for more than a week. General Manager Peter Gelb then announced that due to a prolonged box office downturn, the Met had been forced to withdraw more than $30 million from its endowment and will reduce number of next season’s performances by ten percent.
In addition, Gelb shared that public’s recent enthusiasm for works by living composers—namely Akhnaten, Fire Shut Up in My Bones and The Hours—has encouraged the company to produce more and more of them in the future. Audience members alarmed that this will result in a profound shift away from the classic works of the past may be cheered by the roaring ovations that greeted an enjoyable new production of Fedora on New Year’s Eve giving the Met a happy ending to its terrible December!
Absent from the Met for a quarter of a century, Giordano’s rare verismo potboiler starred glamorous Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of a fiery rich widowed Russian princess whose bad decisions about her complicated love life result in her hasty suicide during the opera’s closing moments. She and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as dashing Count Loris Ipanoff enthusiastically embraced the hoary turn-of-the 20th century melodrama, one rife with damning letters and fatal misunderstandings. Their flamboyant charisma heated up the old-fashioned work, especially in a passionate love duet that brought the second act to a blazing conclusion.
The Met has always lavished megawatt star power on the opera’s ill-fated lovers since it presented Fedora’s first U.S. performances in 1906 featuring Lina Cavalieri and Enrico Caruso, the latter had created the role of Loris at the world premiere eight years earlier. Maria Jeritza and Giovanni Martinelli then spellbound Met audiences during the 1920s after which Fedora disappeared for nearly seventy years until it was revived for Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo in 1996.
Unfortunately, the Met chose not to revive Beppe de Tomasi’s lavish Freni-Domingo production: Sir David McVicar’s efficient new staging wasn’t a marked improvement, and Charles Edwards’s “Chinese box” sets which incorporated odd remnants from each preceding act looked cheap and confusing. However, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s stylish costumes dazzled, particularly her smashing gowns for Yoncheva which the diva wore with ravishing aplomb.
Fedora has never achieved the enduring popularity of Andrea Chénier, Giordano’s most famous work which premiered two years before Fedora. Both intermingle personal and political passions, but the more expansive Chénier does it more successfully. Like Puccini’s Tosca, Fedora is based on a play by Victorien Sardou. During the its initial 1882 run, Sarah Bernhardt created a sensation by wearing a soft felt hat which came to be known as a fedora.
Puccini’s Tosca librettists expertly distilled Sardou’s sprawling play, but Arturo Colautti’s adaptation for Giordano too often loses focus diluting the drama. The opera’s musically arid first act functions as little more than an attenuated prologue setting up the mistaken assumptions which will doom the Fedora-Loris affair. While a charming Rosa Feola and Lucas Meachem excelled as Olga and De Sirieux, their characters’ attractive arias and flirty interplay uneasily divert from the plot. Pianist Bryan Wagorn tossed off his second-act solo with brio while being invited by McVicar to play Boleslao Lazinski as a sort of idiot savant.
For his thirteenth Met production, the Scottish director predictably drew nuanced, committed portrayals from his principals. However, he also continued his rotten habit of inserting distractions which confuse rather than illuminate. For Fedora he gave undue prominence to Count Vladimiro, the heroine’s villainous fiancé. Edwards’ first-act set featured a large blank space which proved to be a scrim through which we observe the count’s extended agonies—why? Vladimiro (played by an uncredited actor) then twice reappeared as a ghost; most damagingly, he skulked about during the finale drawing the audience’s eyes away from the prima donna’s death throes.
A veteran Met Mimi, Violetta and Desdemona, the always endearing Yoncheva once again died expertly. The soprano movingly portrayed the princess’ rapid fall from ecstatic happiness to pitiless despair. Vocally, the role of Fedora isn’t an ideal fit though. It doesn’t tax Yoncheva’s sometimes precarious and wan high notes, but Giordano’s writing demands more gutsy, chesty vigor than Yoncheva was able to supply. Yet her elegance and pathos created an endearing Fedora. After a bumpy “Amor ti vieta,” the opera’s very brief hit aria, Beczala swiftly found his footing and confidently poured out white-hot intensity as Loris first pursued, then rejected his mistaken lover.
Conductor Marco Armiliato’s frequent performances of Italian repertoire at the Met can lapse into lazy routine, but he clearly adores Fedora and Saturday night he alertly accompanied his singers with care and insight. The Met orchestra delighted in some of Giordano’s most sumptuous writing although the score’s high points don’t arrive often enough.
While everyone could list many works—both old and new—more deserving of the talent and dollars the Met has lavished on Fedora, few can quarrel with the result: an exciting evening of full-bodied Italian opera at its most irresistible!