31 March 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Umberto Giordano — FEDORA (M. Johnson, J. Brauner, M. Guzzo, M. Brea, S. White, E. Forteza, R. Casas, M. Gracco, B. Montgomery, J. Weatherston Pitts, R. Agster; Teatro Grattaciello, 16 December 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora (left) and tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948): FedoraMichelle Johnson (Principessa Fedora Romazoff), Jeremy Brauner (Conte Loris Ipanoff), Marcelo Guzzo (De Siriex), Maria Brea (Contessa Olga Sukarev), Samuel White (Desiré), Eugenia Forteza (Dimitri), Rubin Casas (Grech), Michael Gracco (Lorek), Brian Montgomery (Cirillo), Jordan Weatherston Pitts (Barone Rouvel), Rick Agster (Boroff), Kinneret Ely (Un piccolo savoiardo), Pavel Suliandziga (Sergio), William Desbiens (Nicola); Ezio Pelliteri, accordion; Israel Gursky, piano and conductor [Malena Dayen, director; Jon DeGaetano, lighting designer; Matthew Deinhart, assistant lighting designer; Sangmin Chae, projections; Enrico Venrice, editing; Nicole Russell, assistant conductor; Streamed performance by Teatro Grattacielo, filmed at Tagret Margin Theater, Brooklyn, New York, USA, in October 2020]

Use of only ingredients of the highest quality does not transform an indifferent cook into a Michelin-starred chef. Similarly, utilizing superlative components in the making of an opera guarantees neither the resulting score’s merit nor its success. Opera’s history abounds with accounts of the failures of many pieces with plots drawn from the revered pages of Virgil, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and other literary illuminati, but works like Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello, and Massenet’s Werther reveal what delicacies can emerge from musical minds when they are enticed by words worthy of their melodies.

From the first printings of his early poetry and his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, still one of the most familiar novels of the Nineteenth Century, Victor Hugo influenced French culture and global perceptions thereof to an extent that few of his fellow writers have approached. Three years before Hugo’s death in 1885, the vibrant Parisian theatrical community was enchanted by the much-discussed actress Sarah Bernhardt’s first performance of the title rôle in a new play by Victorien Sardou, whose work had already been before the public with varying degrees of acceptance for three decades. Their 1882 collaboration, Fédora, solidified an alliance that produced a progression of new plays including La Tosca and Madame Sans-Gêne via which Sardou and Bernhardt would challenge Hugo’s dominance—and, in the inspiration of operatic adaptations of their creations, surpass it.

The appeal of Sardou’s gritty realism extended beyond France’s borders, spilling over the Alps and into Italy’s operatic centers. In Milan, the allure of Bernhardt’s passionate Fédora fascinated the thirty-year-old Umberto Giordano, who sought a subject for a new work to match the success of his 1896 opera Andrea Chénier. Employing a libretto by Arturo Colautti that preserved the vivid melodrama of Sardou’s play, Giordano’s Fedora premièred on 17 November 1898, in Milan’s Teatro Lirico, a prestigious theater that also hosted the début performances of operas by Antonio Salieri, Gaetano Donizetti, and Ruggero Leoncavallo. The reception that Fedora garnered in Italy rivaled that received by Fédora in Paris, the widespread but short-lived popularity of Giordano’s opera, alongside the brief notoriety of the composer’s later setting of Madame Sans-Gêne and the enduring prominence of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in the international repertory, securing Sardou’s place amongst literature’s most fecund sources of operatic fodder.

Pining to reclaim some incarnation of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred extraordinary ingenuity in the Performing Arts community. With countless performances having been cancelled in accordance with efforts to protect vulnerable populations from the virus, opera companies have adapted their initiatives to the same technologies that allowed businesses and schools to function remotely, uniting artists with audiences via innovative media. Never content to bow to convention even during the best of times, New York’s Teatro Grattacielo collaborated with Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy to mold a streamed production of Giordano’s Fedora into a momentous experience that both transcended the inherent detachment of the medium and recreated the visceral melodrama of Sardou’s play and Giordano’s still-under-appreciated score with greater immediacy than many lavish stagings with full orchestras and on-site audiences manage to engender.

IN REVIEW: the company of Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]Gli ospiti al ballo: (from left to right) baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex, soprano Maria Brea as Olga, bass Rick Agster as Boroff, tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Barone Rouvel, tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris, and soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Performing Fedora with minimalistic scenic designs and singers donning formal attire proved wholly effective in rendering the three disparate settings for the action, the slain Vladimiro’s St. Petersburg palace in Act One, Fedora’s Paris salon in Act Two, and the princess’s Swiss villa in Act Three. Allied with the evocative work of lighting designer Jon DeGaetano and assistant lighting designer Matthew Deinhart, media artist Sangmin Chae’s projections unobtrusively created apt visual atmospheres in which interactions among characters were always the central focus. Capitalizing on the intimacy of the production’s filmed format, Malena Dayen’s direction lent the opera’s action uncommon clarity: regardless of the number of singers on screen and the sameness of their dress, the individual identities of the characters singing and the significance of their utterances were consistently apparent.

Particularly in opulent stagings, the profoundly personal nature of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris amidst the hubbub of Act Two is sometimes obscured, but Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora elucidated every conflicted emotion and convoluted detail of the opera’s political backstory. A good Fedora brings the implausible plot to life: this Fedora intelligently and engagingly brought the realities of life during a pandemic to a century-old opera, the psychological implications of isolation, suspicion, and loss suffered in lockdown manifested in an eloquent realization of Giordano’s score.

Rather than adapting Giordano’s score for performance by a number of musicians that would have complied with restrictions on mass gatherings, Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora partnered the singers with the dexterous pianism of conductor Israel Gursky—a sensible decision, as a substantial portion of Act Two is accompanied according to the composer’s instructions by a pianist portraying Boleslao Lazinski, a fictitious ‘nephew of Chopin.’ Hearing the full score played on the piano highlighted the influence of Chopin on Giordano’s music, particularly the Polacca and Notturno in Act Two. Gursky played the opera’s Andante mosso opening bars with elegance that evolved first into playfulness and later into desperation and grief as Act One progressed. The performance of the Act Two intermezzo was radiant, its reprise of the theme of Ipanoff’s ‘Amor ti vieta’ phrased with fervor. Complemented in Act Three by the marvelous performance of accordionist Ezio Pelliteri and aided throughout the opera by assistant conductor Nicole Russell, Gursky shaped a fittingly fervent but sensitive traversal of Giordano’s score.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Stefanos Koroneos, Teatro Grattacielo assembled a sterling company of artists for this Fedora, both perpetuating the company’s legacy of savvy casting and demonstrating that present hardships have only galvanized musicians’ dedication to their craft. The brief song of the piccolo savoiardo in Act Three exemplified this spirit of reawakening, the lines voiced with an apt aura of bright-toned innocence by soprano Kinneret Ely that contrasted tellingly with mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza’s urgent singing of the traumatized Dimitri’s responses to Fedora’s interrogation in Act One. Tenors Samuel White and Pavel Suliandziga and baritone William Desbiens projected surprising individuality in their strongly-sung portrayals of Desiré, Sergio, and Nicola, and the Lorek and Grech of baritone Michael Gracco and bass-baritone Rubin Casas were similarly enlivened by insightful vocal acting. Baritone Brian Montgomery delivered Cirillo’s lament for his slain patron wrenchingly but with welcome—and rare—restraint, and tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts and bass Rick Agster made much of Rouvel’s and Boroff’s few words, drawing impetus for their vocal colorations from the text.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARIA BREA as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La contessa capricciosa: soprano Maria Brea as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Giordano’s music for the spirited Contessa Olga Sukarev was sung with elegance, tonal beauty, and an apt air of hauteur by soprano Maria Brea. From her first lines at Fedora’s soirée in Act Two, this was indisputably a countess who travelled in the most exclusive social circles and was accustomed to ensuring that she remains the belle of every ball. Brea sang ‘Io sono il capriccio leggero, veloce’ delightfully, contrasting with the gravitas of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris precisely as Giordano intended and producing her top As with youthful ebullience. Reacting to De Siriex’s commentary on Russian womanhood, her account of ‘Il parigino è come il vino’ was a good-natured but barbed rejoinder. Brea also lent fleeting moments of levity to Act Three, punctuating her impassioned voicing of ‘Sempre io stesso verde!’ with a shimmering top B and continuing Olga’s contest of wits with De Siriex with flippant conviction. Despite the limits on opportunities to act the rôle imposed by the pandemic, Brea’s characterization of the vivacious countess lacked nothing, the voice and the singer’s innate theatricality rendering stage antics and glittering costumes unnecessary.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARCELO GUZZO as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La voce della legge: baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Baritone Marcelo Guzzo was a De Siriex whose burnished, imposing vocalism matched his debonair diplomacy. Subtly commandeering the questioning of the wounded Vladimiro’s servants whilst also comforting and reassuring the devastated Fedora in Act One, Guzzo’s De Siriex sang and acted forcefully. Though it is seldom included in baritones’ recital and recording repertoires, De Siriex’s aria in Act Two, ‘La donna russa è femmina due volte,’ is one of Fedora’s few easily-excerpted numbers, and Guzzo’s undaunted mastery of its quicksilver rhythms and troublesome tessitura exuding irrepressible vitality. This De Siriex neither gloated nor goaded in his conversations with Fedora, relaying rather than sensationalizing the news of the deaths of Ipanoff’s mother and brother, for which Fedora’s accusation of her lover as her fiancé’s murderer was the catalyst. His vivid sparring with Olga in Act Three revealed impishness, jovially rendering the flirtatious rapport between the decorous diplomat and the coy countess. Guzzo voiced ‘Fatevi cor contessa!’ and ‘Lui! Cadde per l’empia sua crudeltà’ with obvious cognizance of the literal and suggestive meanings of the words. Throughout the performance, the baritone’s intelligible diction heightened the refinement of his depiction of De Siriex, but the character benefited most from Guzzo’s superb singing.

IN REVIEW: tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]L’amante e l’assassino: tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Like Wagner’s Isolde, the titular heroine of Fedora ultimately falls in love with the object of her pursuit of vengeance, the man responsible for the death of her betrothed, though no sorcery facilitates Fedora’s romantic attraction to the brooding Loris Ipanoff. The rôle of Loris was entrusted in the first production of Fedora to Enrico Caruso, who recorded the character’s famous aria with the composer at the piano four years after the opera’s première. This established a benchmark to which tenors’ performances continue to be compared. Following the examples of singers including Ramón Vinay, Carlo Bergonzi, and Plácido Domingo, Teatro Grattacielo’s Loris, Jeremy Brauner, started his vocal studies as a baritone and later transitioned to singing tenor rôles. There were subtle reverberations of his baritonal origins in his performance of Ipanoff’s music, as well as propitious reminders not only of Caruso but of other noted interpreters of Loris, namely Bruno Prevedi and Giuseppe Giacomini.

Brauner’s first appearance in Act Two made Ipanoff’s absence from the opera’s first act regrettable, his robust vocalism immediately raising the temperature of the performance’s simmering verismo. Wooing his Fedora with the Andante cantabile aria ‘Amor ti vieta di non amar,’ sung in recitals and concerts by virtually every tenor active since Fedora’s première, Brauner advanced Loris’s suit with ardor and a fine top A. The plangency of his singing of ‘Mia madre, la mia vecchia madre’ and ‘Vedi, io piango’ garnered the listener’s empathy as ably as it captivated Fedora’s heart.

The metamorphosis of Ipanoff from grieving son and brother to betrayed and ultimately despairing lover in Act Three sometimes elicits over-emphatic vocalism that obfuscates the wronged count’s vulnerability. Brauner’s singing never lacked power, but his characterization also limned the part’s poignant nuances. There was no artifice in his articulation of ‘O bianca madre, o buon fratello,’ Ipanoff’s anguish conveyed with affecting sincerity, and his brilliant top B♭ escalated the expressive urgency of his delivery of ‘Son qui, vicino a te.’ Brauner’s tone occasionally hardened in moments of duress, but his intonation was admirably secure throughout the range. In some performances, Loris is little more than a cipher with a famous aria: Brauner’s Ipanoff was a worthy quarry for his Fedora and a fully-formed character in his own right.

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La bella principessa: soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

In addition to creating the title rôle in Fedora, soprano Gemma Bellincioni was the first interpreter of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and sang the eponymous spitfire in the Italian première of Richard Strauss’s Salome. First recorded in studio by Gilda dalla Rizza, considered by Puccini to be the ideal Minnie in his La fanciulla del West, Fedora has attracted sopranos—and a few brave mezzo-sopranos—with vastly different vocal endowments. No Fedora is more renowned than Maria Callas, whose 1956 portrayal at La Scala is rumored to have been documented on recordings that have never materialized, but no one is more closely associated with the rôle than Magda Olivero. There has been no other voice like Olivero’s, and her histrionic gifts were equally unique. Nevertheless, her Fedora is a model for fellow interpreters of the part, her shadow over the opera extending even longer than Caruso’s.

A successful Fedora might seek to emulate certain aspects of Olivero’s interpretation but must recognize that Olivero was inimitable. The foremost success of this production’s Fedora, soprano Michelle Johnson, was her intuitive formation of a portrayal of the dangerous but delicate princess that, like Olivero’s, honored Sardou and Giordano. It was especially gratifying to hear a singer at the height of her abilities as Fedora, the rôle so often being assigned to singers in the latter days of their careers, when the music’s demands, marginally narrower in compass and arguably less strenuous than those of Puccini’s heroines, mitigate reduced vocal resources. Johnson’s singing was commendably and often exuberantly free of compromise: the rôle was in the voice and performed with unflappable confidence.

Arriving at Vladimiro’s estate to assume her place as his intended bride in Act One, Johnson’s Fedora was discernibly a woman of a certain age, unquestionably in love with her betrothed but also enchanted by the prospect of being loved. Her statements to Vladimiro’s servants were genially imperious, but Fedora’s inner fragility was revealed in Johnson’s dulcet voicing of the beautiful Andantino espressivo ‘O grandi occhi lucenti di fede,’ her top A imparting the depth of Fedora’s affection. The simplicity of her singing of ‘Mio dolce Vladimiro! Sogno d’amor, di pace, di poesia!’ realized the full expressive potential of the music. As the gravity of Vladimiro’s condition became apparent, the change in Johnson’s demeanor was unmistakable, her Fedora’s amorous femininity acquiescing to primal ferocity as she probed Vladimiro’s household for information about his attack. Vowing to have justice, this Fedora’s ‘Su questa santa croce, ricordo di mia madre’ was genuinely moving, the soprano’s performance disclosing the shattered bond between Fedora’s happiness and her love for Vladimiro.

Johnson’s acting skills shone in Act Two, in which Fedora sets a trap for Ipanoff but ensnares herself when she falls in love with him. The magnitude of Fedora’s true objectives was apparent despite her feigned insouciance in the revelers’ company, her pursuit of Loris driven by verbal acuity and vocal potency. Reticence was audible in ‘Lascia che pianga io sola,’ the fractures in Fedora’s steely resolve widening into charms as she succumbed to her burgeoning love. Johnson thrillingly accepted Giordano’s challenge of an optional top C in the expansive duet with Loris, her voice soaring in ecstasy.

The caliber of Johnson’s artistry was confirmed in Fedora’s scene with De Siriex in Act Three. Learning that her implication of Loris in Vladimiro's assassination led to the deaths of Ipanoff’s brother and mother, Johnson’s Fedora was overwhelmed by the consequences of her actions. The soprano’s command of line yielded a stirring account of ‘Dio di giustizia, che col santo ciglio,’ but Johnson achieved still greater heights of operatic expression with her ruminative singing of ‘Se quella sciagurata perdutamente avesse amato Vladimiro?’ and ‘Se quell’infelice qui stesse ai tuoi piedi.’ The voluptuous voice reduced to a thread of emotion in the authentic Olivero fashion, Johnson enunciated ‘Tutto tramonta...tutto dilegua’ with harrowing earnestness. Dramatically, Johnson offered a fascinatingly complete portrait of Fedora. Vocally, she sang the rôle with an assurance that is now seldom heard in performances of verismo repertoire.

Combatting COVID-19 has altered perspectives on art and artists’ practices, the necessity of avoiding gathering for performances accentuating the desire for shared artistic experiences. There is no adequate substitute for sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers in a theater, not merely hearing but feeling voices rise above an orchestra, but Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Fedora was an act of sustenance, not one of surrogacy. Its musical integrity and dramatic values overcoming the limitations of its genesis, this Fedora reaffirmed that opera thrives on—and in—strife.