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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Opera Review: The Unknown Nose

The Met ends its season with Cyrano de Bergerac.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The rapier wit: Roberto Alagna as Cyrano de Bergerac.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 the Metropolitan Opera.
In the closing month of the Metropolitan Opera season, the company's renaissance of French opera is in full swing. The reason: the company's first revival of its 2005 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Roberto Alagna as the swashbuckling swordsman whose enormous nose arrives 15 minutes before he does. Mr. Alagna is a proven star, but Cyrano is an unknown opera. Written by Franco Alfano (himself best remembered as the unlucky soul assigned to complete Puccini's Turandot) it had the misfortune to debut in 1936, as the clouds of World War II gathered and people didn't seem that interested in opera.

Out of  Puccini's shadow, Alfano writes in a fluent conversational idiom that recalls the height of the Italian verismo school, leavened with a nimble orchestration that captures the comic nature of the story. The piece owes something to the ideas of Claude Debussy, with its shifting tonalities, conversational dialogue and a decided emphasis on dramatic flow and theatrical moments over hit tunes. Alfano is a craftsman, but not a great tunesmith.

Cyrano is a demanding tenor part, a heroic Verdi role with an even higher tessitura. After a rocky tone in the entrance, Mr. Alagna proved a charismatic lead, capturing the devil-may-care personality of Cyrano, that mix of duellist, poet and social critic that makes the long-nosed cavalier such a beloved literary figure. Even the enormous, fleshy proboscis worn by the singer for four acts did not interfere with his tone, he produced ringing tone and a bold presence when finally warmed up, and sang with sensitivity and sweetness in the powerful final scene.

As Christian, the knuckle-headed knight who enlists Cyrano's aid to woo and wed the lovely Roxane, tenor Atalia Ayan proved an apt foil to Mr. Alagna. The balcony scene, where the gents swapped places and wooed the lady in some kind of weird parody of Rigoletto proved compelling theater, the moment when the opera finally spread its wings and soared. Mr. Ayan is a promising talent, and if he continues the way he is going the Met's next revival of this opera may be for him.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley was a late addition to the cast, stepping in this spring to learn and sing Roxane. She proved a compelling heroine, beautiful and unattainable, genuine in her passion for Christian and painfully blind to Cyrano himself. She was absolutely magnificent in the balcony scene and on the battlefields in Act III, a scene that recalled La Navarraise in its uncompromising portrait of war.

The three leads had strong support. Baritone Juan Jesús Rodríguez and bass-baritone David Pittsinger brought a welcome bottom end as De Guiche and Cyrano's friend Le Bret, important roles in an opera so focused on the higher voices. The Met chorus and ballet dancers lent voice and veracity to the fight scenes, with the latter shining in the curtain-dropping duel of Cyrano against a hundred men that ends the first act. But in the end it was Mr. Alagna and Ms. Rowley who made this opera spin.

The opera tracks closely with the play, although certain Cyrano-esque moments are sacrificed in the libretto, presumably in the interest of singability and bravery. The show moves smoothly from the streets of Paris to the battlefield of Arras, putting Cyrano and Christian at the center of the war effort before ending the drama, fifteen years later at the cloister where Roxane chooses to live out her last years. This finale was the most touching and effective part of the whole show, led with great sensitivity by Marco Armiliato and heart-breaking emotion from Ms. Rowley and Mr. Alagna.

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