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Some aging opera stars require a list of disclaimers and a plea for charity before their work can be enjoyed. Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni don’t. Has the advance of time exacted a toll on their voices? Sure. Freni’s vibrato has opened up a little and her tone is just that much edgier, but we can still hear the dewy young soprano at her core. Domingo’s high notes take some extra effort to produce these days. But produce them he does, with a heft and ring the envy of any dozen tenors singing his repertoire today. In a way, these longtime colleagues, both in their mid-60s, have entered the richest stage of their careers. Their lyric voices have burnished into dramatic ones without sacrificing their honeyed sound, and their fine acting instincts have only grown over the years. More than anything, though, it’s their unerring feel for the idiom of Italian operafrom the hushed intensity of their soft singing to their skill at knocking high notes out of the parkthat sweeps aside most pretenders to their thrones.
Umberto Giordano’s Fedora presents Domingo in his one singing engagement at Washington Opera this season and showcases Freni in her belated debut with the company. Giordano, one of many turn-of-the-century Italian one-hit wonders, earned his place in the pantheon with Andrea Chenier, a darkly beautiful hunk of verismo set during the French Revolution. Fedora was as successful in its daythis year marks the 100th anniversary of its premiereas was Chenier. But whereas Chenier has kept its foothold in opera houses, Fedora has been relegated to the sidelines, along with the composer’s 10 other seldom-staged works.
Depending on whom you talk to, Fedora is either a Great Neglected Work or a negligible little potboiler with one good tenor aria (“Amor ti vieta,” a perennial fave as an encore showpiece). The truth, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in between. The plot deals with the love-hate romance between Russian princess Fedora (Freni) and her fiancé’s murderer, Count Ipanov (Domingo), and the destruction of Ipanov’s family by avenging Czarist forces. The libretto is no winner, both melodramatic and underwritten, but it has the advantage of concision and gives Giordano the opportunity to have some musical fun with its trans-European locales. The peasant girl with the accordion in Act 3 (set in Switzerland) is a little too precious for her own good, but the St. Petersburg of Act 1 is painted in moodily Tchaikovskian hues, and the Act 2 Parisian salon is borne aloft on a sea of champagne bubbles. In a telling stroke, Giordano weaves a love duet around the strains of a solo piano recital taking place in the salon, lending the emotional exchange starkness and intimacy. Elsewhere, Giordano alternates Puccinian sweep and bustle with a pared-down melancholy that’s really quite striking. Fedora may not be a tunefest, but it’s crammed full of expressive imagination.
Roberto Abbado, whose reputation has been growing exponentially through recordings and guest engagements, conducts a yearning, volatile reading of the score, and his cast is up to WashOp’s high standards. Most impressive are Jay Baylon’s nicely creepy Inspector Gretch, the fetching coloratura of Judith Howarth as the coquettish Countess Olga, and Richard Stilwell’s subtle, heartfelt portrait of De Siriex, the French diplomat who serves as Fedora’s confidant. But really, there is no weakness in this young, mostly American cast. The fine Russian pianist Alexander Paley makes an amusing impression as the Chopinesque pianist Lazinski, and he plays his Act 2 solos eloquently.
The production arrives from La Scala by way of Los Angeles. Directors Lamberto Puggelli and David Edwards tell the story well enough and, if they don’t avoid the expected 19th-century posing, at least they enliven it with hints of genuine behavior. Set designer Luisa Spinatelli’s projected drops and mirrored walls work best at the beginnings and ends of acts, when the cast is silhouetted against black-and-white images of imposing European architecture. I’m not sure whether these moments are intended merely to look pretty or to suggest characters dwarfed by a power elite, but the effect is evocativeas are the lovely lighting by Joan Sullivan and Spinatelli’s costumes.
WashOp’s Fedora is a significant production for them. Beyond the importing of La Freni and the chance to hear one of those hidden gems the company uncovers for us year after year, Fedora heralds the start of its first truly world-class season. Rarities like Sly and The Crucible tread the boards alongside those long-absent heavyweights Boris Godunov, Simon Boccanegra and Tristan und Isolde (quite a change from last year’s fluffier-is-better aesthetic). The heady artist roster includes José Carreras, José Cura, Simon Estes, Denyce Graves, and Samuel Ramey. Productions will come from, or be shared with, Covent Garden, Oper der Stadt Bonn, the Los Angeles Opera (which, it was announced this week, will begin sharing Domingo himself with WashOp in the role of artistic director), Teatro Regio of Parma, and the San Francisco Opera. Now that WashOp is doing that champagne wishes/caviar dreams thing, it’s unrealistic to expect any return to the experimental fervor of its radical ’70s seasons. But thanks to a resurgence of interest in the company, attendant on the mega-tenor now in charge, WashOp is finally ready to play with the big boys.
We may just get a Ring out of this deal yet.CP