Sunday, October 31, 2010

"My Scissors ... Here In My Bag" - Impression of Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac"

Italian composer Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac made its San Francisco Opera premiere this season, featuring the legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, who made his local debut in 1969.  I saw the performance on 30 October.

It was very gratifying to hear and observe that Maestro Domingo was in full command of his still beautiful and powerful voice and possessed noble stage presence at the age of 69.  He also had wonderful colleagues, most memorable was the soprano Ainhoa Arteta who had a vibrant, beautiful and full voice and a lovely woman and a natural actress.

However, the opera itself was not satisfying.  Before the show, I tried very much to like the opera, for the unjustly ignored Franco Alfano's sake.  He was mostly known as the person who finished much more famous Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, and often criticized for the alleged bombastic and efficient ending.  What was so unfair here was that his completed ending was seldom performed and his truncated version was undeniably unsubtle.  However, once one got chance to familiarize with his complete version of the ending, the criticism hardly stands.

In this frame of mind, I approached this novelty, which was premiered in 1936 in Rome and was only premiered in the US in 2005, again, sung by Domingo as the title role.

The story of beauty and beast, the inner and outer beauty issue is a fascinating one.  Before music started, we were treated to some backstage business while singers and actors prepared for a show, behind the curtain.  Very promising start.  However, as soon as the opera proper started, the whole show became quite tedious.

The four-act opera was set to the libretto by Henri Caïn, based on Edmond Rostand's drama Cyrano de Bergerac.  The libretto was a paring down of the dense play.  Apparently, the librettist tried to maintain many strands of the popular play, which unfortunately I had neither seen on stage nor read so my inevitable comparison to the play might be somewhat off but I will do my best to be as objective as possible. 

The opera tried to present Cyrano de Bergerac as a poet, a swashbuckler and a lover.  However, due to natural constraint of the opera, we didn't get a clear idea of any of these multiple facets of the character.  Without a reflection of his self-denied passionate love, due to his strange look, like Tristan or Radames in Aida, it was hard to sympathize with his pain and value his noble suffering, and the wonderful duality of his characters were seriously under-developed.

The libretto was very wordy, despite many sword fights it managed to contain and most of these words were set as serious expositions which became aimless and boring fast and thick.  According to SF Opera's program, the play was very suitable to musical comedy.  Judging from the whatever remained, I longed for a comedy/farce in the style of Rossini, Donizetti or Offenbach.  Alfano, instead, gave it a serious treatment and the shifting between farce and serious passion was not nimble and the hybrid result was very unsatisfying.  Those long expositions should be cut much further and whatever remained should be in a Sprechgesang, masterfully employed by Alban Berg or Arnold Schoenberg. When the librettist was not busying feeding us background information, he quoted supposedly Cyrano's writing, which again got noble but all-purpose full lyrical treatment and soon became meaningless again.

There were two passages I can cite as particularly wrong.  When Roxanne went through enemy line to be with her husband, who was about to be killed, she was allowed precious moment to give a detailed description how she passed the enemy line by flashing her loveliest smiles, by claiming to meet her lover, not her husband since that will sure to bring in her own destruction, etc, etc.  Another offensive moment was at the end of the opera, just before the dying Cyrano to see Roxanne for the last time, we had to hear her sing lines like these: "My scissors ... here in my bag."  What was the point of that line?  I had no idea.  It seemed that the editor's scissors were hidden in a bag as well.

Adapting established play or novel is a perilous job.  By nature, it takes much longer time to sing than say the words so an opera based on a play will inevitably lose many fine points.  A good play needs to have strong characterizations and dramatic integrity and can cover a vast ground in a short span.  A good opera needs to have strong characterizations, a clear and easy to follow plot, and is best at expressing outpouring emotions. When I sat through many meaningless (or meaningful in the complete play but less so in the libretto) stretches, I longed for a heightened dramatic situation and bursts of emotions, like those by Verdi, Wagner and Strauss.

We did get two such moments.  One was the famous balcony scene when Cyrano fed words to tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxanne and finally Cyrano pour out his love to Roxanne in concentrated stretch of baring one's soul.  It started with Puccinian lyricism and ended with Straussian eroticism.  The other moment was the dying Cyrano reading the farewell letter he composed for Christian and again, revealed his long suffering and true emotion.  These moments brought the character and the music to sublimity but it was only two long scene and the rest of the evening was not very memorable, music wise.

Sometimes, an equally un-hummable opera could work wonders, like Doktor Faust by Ferruccio Busoni, or The Minotaur by Harrison Birtwistle, as long as they present gripping drama and the music fits the moments on stage.

I could images two ways of setting Cyrano successfully: a) set it as almost play with incidental music and contain as many fine points as possible, as action packed as the original play, therefore, create a milieu of France of 17th century; b) radically cut the plot to the concentrate on the emotions of one, two or even three main characters, particularly their inner thoughts and struggle, instead of a plot hard to follow and too many characters hard to pin down.

Alfano's attempt was noble but the failure was apparent.  There was no denying of that.

Last night's performance was a not a failure, largely due to the wonderful singing, wonderful visual effects and clever staging, however busy or silly at times.

It was a triumph of talent of the cast and the will of one of our most beloved living artist.

It was reported that when San Francisco Opera's general director David Gockley and Domingo discussed projects for San Francisco, Domingo proposed Cyrano and Handel's Tamerlano.  I couldn't understand Gockley's choice of Cyrano but I hope that we still will have chance to hear Mr. Domingo in Tamerlano, which is a true masterpiece. 

The reaction to the performers were very enthusiastic and after 16 years hiatus in a staged role, we welcomed Maestro Domingo's return with true gratitude.  I included two video samples here - one is San Francisco Opera's trailer for Cyrano and the other one how Domingo save an opening night in 1983.  He is a true legend.

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