At one time an opera belonging to the standard repertoire, Fedora has for several decades (since the end of War World II, basically) been staged only by request of some famous primadonnas in the “Sunset Boulevard” phase of their careers, eager to sink their teeth into a highly theatrical role that does not put undue stress on the very high register. Both statements are corroborated by the annals of opera in Genoa: twenty productions were mounted between February 1899 (just three months after the world premiere at the Teatro Lirico in Milan) and 1945, then there is a eleven year gap (1956) and after this a staggering forty-four years go by before Mirella Freni, who had been singing it all over the world in her farewell phase, offered it to the Carlo Felice audiences in 2000. It took a Genoese diva, Daniela Dessì, to ensure that Fedora emerged from the semi-oblivion into which had fallen.
This is however a review of the alternate cast, headed by another renowned soprano from Genoa, Irene Cerboncini, who confirmed and reinforced the positive impression I had of her last year as Tosca, another product of Sardou’s fervid imagination. Miss Cerboncini, who sang this role at La Scala a decade ago, is still in her vocal prime, possesses a true spinto soprano with a compact penetrating top, a meaty low and middle register that allows her to tackle the rather hybrid tessitura of the role (Fedora, just like another Gemma Bellincioni creation, Santuzza, has often lured mezzo-sopranos in search of leading roles) and to sink into the low register with taste. Particularly rich with overtones an dwith no hint of stridency was the area of the voice where the role hammers the most (F 5 – A 5), and the C 6 at the end of Act II (which is only an option offered by the composer) was produced with self-assuredness, expressing an appropriate sense of liberating climax. Although it is usually described as a verista opera (naturalistic would be a more pertinent definition), the emphasis placed on emotional extremes brings Fedora closer to an exercise in psychopathology: Miss Cerboncini sounds beautiful in the title role, but rarely neurotic or dangerous. It might have been a hyper-corrective attempt to “cleanse” the part from histrionic excesses, but it ended sanitizing it too much. On the other hand, Rubens Pelizzari’s approach to voice production is rooted in a certain tradition of 1950’s tenor singing; his interpretation sounded to be modelled upon Mario Del Monaco’s DECCA recording, with entire phrases virtually identical ( for example, the howling on the first syllable of the phrase “un’onda di risa” in Loris’ Act II narration). Even allowing for the fact that this opera does not call for or encourage subtleties, he tends to sing everything forte, with a slightly nasal sound in the middle register and open notes above the stave. Written for a young Enrico Caruso, (who early on could not rely on a secure top), the role of Loris also lies in the middle range and particularly in the passaggio, like most of the tenor roles composed in that historical period. For the record, Pelizzari was forced to sing two performances back to back, about fifteen hours apart, due to the indisposition of Fabio Armiliato the evening before. A most pleasing surprise was the Olga of Paola Santucci, who succeeded in the desperate endeavour to give some depth to a vocally and even more so dramatically thankless role, whose only purpose is to lighten up the tension and create a moment of frivolousness right before and as a contrast to the final catastrophe. Miss Santucci has a pretty timbre, compact and quite dark for a lyric-leggero, a solid technique and a natural bearing on stage. However, this was not sufficient to let her keep the Act III “bicycle aria”: while it may not be first class music, there is no point in making cuts is such a short opera. Sergio Bologna gave a convincing portrayal of the diplomat De Siriex, both touched and engaged in Act III, and lighthearted when needed; vocally the role did not seem to present particular problems for him. Considering the staggering number of secondary roles, I would like to mention only veteran Luigi Roni as Cirillo and the child Sebastiano Carbone for his pure and on-pitch voice as the Mountain Boy.
That Valerio Galli has a particular affinity with the repertoire of the Giovane Scuola has already been long established, and his Puccini interpretations are witnesses of this. For a conductor, the biggest challenge in Fedora is to maintain an extremely tight narrative tension and at the same time give the due prominence to the melodic expansions, and it is safe to say that Galli found the right balance: he conducted this music, which admittedly suffers from quality drops, with a constant fire, energising also those moments that may initially seem inert, such as the musically skinny scene (basically nothing more than a very long pedal) when Fedora decides to write the letter, and that flows into the famous intermezzo, performed by the conductor with overwhelming emotional vibration and breathing.
The production by Rosetta Cucchi, formerly one of the most sought after music coaches now turned into a stage director, sets the action about thirty years later, in 1914, when the old world order, as well as Fedora’s privileged environment, was about to collapse. The story is a long flashback: a decrepit Loris sits on a chair in a corner (even during the intermissions), reliving with never ending anguish the events. Cucchi divided Tiziano Santi’s sets in three layers: old Loris sits in the one closer to the audience, the middle one hosts the actual story, while the last one, beyond a huge glass window, shows events from the external world: soldiers fighting and coming back maimed from the front, and even the whole imperial family of Nicholas II, posing for the official portrait, their clothes already blood-stained. Thanks also to Claudia Pernigotti’s costumes, it was an enjoyable, good-looking production, fairly traditional for a stage producer who has been shocking Italian audiences with bold regie-theater readings. It was lamentable to see so many empty seats, and I heard that the night before even the presence of a beloved primadonna such as Dessì did not do much to alter the situation.
Photo credit: Marcello Orselli