Domingo, colorful San Francisco Opera production provide admirable advocacy for Alfano’s problematic “Cyrano”

November 10, 2010

Placido Domingo and Ainhoa Arteta in San Francisco Opera's production of Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac." Photo: Cory Weaver.

Composer Franco Alfano’s place in musical history is still largely confined to his completion of Turandot, the final scene of which was left unfinished at Puccini’s death. Though undertaken at the request of Toscanini, the combustible conductor was unhappy with Alfano’s efforts. At the first rehearsal, Alfano asked, “What do you think, Maestro?” to which Toscanini replied, “I think I see Puccini coming from the back of the stage to hit me.” (In fairness, the standard completion is usually heard in Toscanini’s edited version, which greatly truncates Alfano’s work.)

Still, since his death, Alfano’s own operas have largely been shot out of the canon—the composer’s support of Mussolini didn’t help his postwar reputation much either. Yet Alfano enjoyed significant acclaim in his lifetime (1875-1954), with his 1904 Tolstoy adaptation, Risurrezione, a huge hit and the 1936 Cyrano de Bergerac, heard Tuesday at San Francisco Opera, also enjoying success.

Give great credit to San Francisco Opera for mounting this revival of Alfano’s Cyrano (French version) and fielding a lively, colorful production and first-class cast, led by Placido Domingo in the title role of the unprepossessing swordsman and poet.

Domingo has consistently championed this work and it’s fair to say that without his advocacy and presence guaranteeing box office–Tuesday’s penultimate performance at the War Memorial Opera House was packed–the belated 2005 U.S Met premiere and 2009 Théâtre du Châtelet production, revived here, would likely not have happened.

Still, even for those of us generously predisposed to offbeat repertoire, it’s not hard to understand the opera’s neglect. Cyrano shows undoubted craft and facility, and Alfano is a skillful orchestrator and man of the theater, throwing in plenty of stage action and rousing choruses.

The problem is the complete lack of melodic distinction in the score. Even in such key moments as the balcony scene with Christian and Cyrano changing places to woo Roxane, and the poignant final scene between Roxane and Cyrano, the music remains utterly unmemorable, feeling like it’s constantly on the verge of a great melody that never arrives. Alfano’s fluent, piquant orchestration often was more interesting than the vocal lines on top. The opera is also hobbled by librettist Henri Cain’s pedestrian adaptation of Rostand’s play. (Verdi and even Massenet would have tossed it back for immediate revisions.)

In an era when cost-effective minimalism is increasing the norm in opera productions, Petrika Ionesco’s colorful, often stunningly theatrical production is a welcome throwback. From Ionesco’s eye-popping opening theater scene at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in which Cyrano interrupts the performance and insults the ham actor Montfleury to the towering bakery of Act 2 and the moonlit balcony design, the production is visually resplendent. Ionesco, who also directed, engages the eye with much lively action, realistic swordplay, mortar and musket fire, and even some brave opera house stagehands rappelling from the vast height of the stage.

Domingo, at 69 and following colon cancer surgery last March, remains a wonder. The Spanish tenor sang with ardor and commitment throughout the evening and richly conveyed all of the humor, poignancy and heroic swagger of the romantic poet handicapped by a prodigious proboscis. Domingo remains our greatest operatic actor, and the sensitivity and depth of feeling he brought to the final scene, vocally and dramatically, elevated Alfano’s problematic score.

Ainhoa Arteta as his beloved Roxanne, looked lovely and conveyed the girlish charm and mercurial whimsy of the woman who bewitches all in her path. If her held notes betrayed an alarming wobble at times, the Spanish soprano was always dramatically effective, and at her finest, along with Domingo, in the affecting final scene.

As Christian, the handsome but tongue-tied soldier who needs Cyrano’s eloquent words to attract the unwilling Roxane, Thiago Arancam made an impressive company debut. Tall and charismatic, the Brazilian was perfectly cast, displaying a plangent high tenor—though nothing like Domingo’s, which made Roxane’s being fooled improbable–and assured stage presence.

As De Guiche, Roxane’s married admirer, Stephen Powell brought an imposing baritone and depth of characterization to this ambivalent figure. Brian Mulligan was a characterful Ragueneau, and Lester Lynch a vital Carbon, while Martin Rojas-Dietrich’s Montfleury bordered on camp.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier conducted Alfano’s music with an alert and supportive hand but there’s only so much you can accomplish with a score like this. Kudos to San Francisco Opera Orchestra member Stephanie McNab for her game stage debut, playing the Act 3 flute melody—possibly the most memorable theme in the opera—onstage in cadet garb.

The final performamce of Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac is 7:30 p.m. Friday.

2 Responses to “Domingo, colorful San Francisco Opera production provide admirable advocacy for Alfano’s problematic “Cyrano””

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2010 at 5:19 pm by Cruz

    I saw “Cyrano” for the first time ever in this SF Opera production, and liked it so much that I saw it a second time. You (and many others) are right when you say that the music isn’t memorable — I didn’t come out of the opera house humming any tunes. But one of the things I like about the score is that it supports the action very well and allows the words to make their own impressions. This might be strange to say about the music in an opera but I appreciated the fact that the music played an EQUAL part of the drama, along with the action and the text, without overwhelming them.

    anyway, these are my second impressions after last night. If it fit my schedule, I’d return to see “Cyrano” a third time.

  2. Posted Nov 28, 2010 at 3:44 am by Eric D. Anderson

    I saw “Cyrano” at the Met, when Domingo sang the role for the first time. I also own several recordings of the opera, and a DVD as well, and am very fond of it.

    I wholly disagree that the music isn’t memorable. It has several wonderful motifs when I could hum for you at the drop of a hat. But “Cyrano” is an opera of it’s time–an opera of the 20th century, created in an era when big tunes were out of fashion. Alfano’s 1904 opera “Risurrezione” is full of melody. Could you hum the tunes of “Moses und Aron” or “Lulu”, which were written around the same time? But they are given a pass because they are atonal, and thus, “progressive”. The balcony scene and the finale are as poetic as anything in opera.