I first saw Cyrano de Bergerac in a BBC-TV production with Eric Porter in 1968: since then I've seen the films with Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu, and a surprisingly effective Italian silent film (and of course Roxanne).

As I'm particularly interested in obscure romantic operas, I was very pleased to have an opportunity yesterday evening to see Alfano's opera of the play, in a very good production at Covent Garden. The house was packed, though this was probably because Cyrano was sung by Placido Domingo rather than any interest in the opera itself. The Roxanne was Sondra Radvanovsky, and the conductor was Mark Elder.

Alfano's opera was first performed in 1936. By choosing this particular play at that time he set himself two serious problems, which he hasn't entirely overcome. Firstly, by 1936 the fashion for full-blown romantic opera had passed: he deliberately went for a more muted style. Ten years earlier, Puccini, Korngold, Schreker or Zemlinsky would have given it the full romantic sweep, which I think it really needs. Also Alfano seems to play down the comic aspects of the work - it is hilarious as well as tragically romantic. The style is a sort of muted romanticism, with a fair amount of dissonance.

The other is a problem which has bedevilled other composers: setting an existing text in its original language. I don't know how closely the libretto follows the original, apart from the obvious necessity for cuts, but I assume that much of the text is based closely on Rostand's original which, though in verse, is still meant to be spoken. Original opera libretti are normally more terse; setting text intended to be spoken tends to move things along too slowly, and in this case - particularly in Act 1 - makes the music become a mere accompaniment to what is very strong dialogue. Vaughan Williams fell over the same problem with Shakespeare in Sir John In Love : by contrast Verdi, by setting Otello in Italian was able to use Boito's brilliantly condensed libretto to tremendous effect.

The result with Cyrano is an opera which has little memorable music and which does not carry the story along as it should. It only really begins to come to life with the end of Act 2 - the balcony scene where Cyrano speaks Christian's declarations of love, to his own distress: and the final act works well on the whole.

So I shan't be buying the CDs: but I'm very glad to have had a chance to hear it, and the Royal Opera House are to be commended for putting on something unusual rather than the usual handful of popular operas. Now, lads, how about some Schreker, Korngold and Zemlinsky?

Links: CD | French Culture | Opera Today

Posted by Roger Wilmut   May 25th, 10:09


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