At the Act I curtain call in New York, Rudolph Giuliani popped out, spot-lit, from behind the heavy gold drapes. Why? Umberto Giordano’s 1898 verismo jewel, Fedora, is stuffed with grandees, city officials, even a village mayor, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t spotted Giuliani walking the walk, or singing the sing.
Maybe he had been the stricken, silent Count, fatally wounded in a duel, who is whisked on at the beginning and conveniently dies in an ante room without singing a note? That must be it. Oh, bravo, Rudi! If only for summoning the self-control to stay shtum for 45 minutes.
It was the lack of glistening black sweat streaks from that famous jet-dyed comb-over that gave the game away. This was 1997 not 2023, a Metropolitan Opera classic video featuring Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, Italian superstar soprano, Mirella Freni and – here’s the joker in the pack – Italian superstar Mayor of New York, Giuliani. Really?
Mr. Mayor was there, not to sing, but mark Freni’s farewell Met performance – she had been a stalwart for 42 years and thirteen roles, from 1965 – presenting her with something she really, really wanted. A really, really vulgar, boxed gold key to the city. La Freni looked on quizzically, like Queen Elizabeth II eyeballing a dodgy canapé at a garden party. Joseph Volpe, then General Manager of the Met, gawked. Huge ovation, then on to Act II.
It is a measure of how tainted the former mayor’s reputation has become through his absurd Trumpian antics that the “clean-em-up,” no nonsense, tamer of Manhattan’s 1990’s mean streets, who received a round of spontaneous, resounding applause as the city’s saviour, today couldn’t get away with playing Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream” without cat-calls.
Freni’s appearance in the previous production has relevance for this current, dazzling Glasgow born David McVicar production of a seldom performed opera. The role of Princess Fedora in Fedora is what is known in McVicar’s native Glasgow pub argot as a “belter”. Usually a swan-song reserved for les grandes dames in their twilight years.
Which, as far as the plot is concerned is bad casting. The Princess is highly emotional, passionate, complex, whimsical. In other words, young. Casting Bulgarian soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, at the peak of her powers, but compared with Freni a spring chicken, was smart. Pairing her with Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala was nothing short of a stroke of genius.
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The pair sing together frequently and display onstage chemistry that creates fire and brimstone. And there is plenty of both in this complex piece. The whole work sprang to life.
Fedora is an international political thriller. It cuts like a 007 film from Russia to Paris and finally the Swiss Alps.
Princess Fedora is in the salon of her fiancé, Count Vladimiro Andrejevich in Moscow. She is, bizarrely, visiting for the first time, just before their wedding, poking around. So, there is an “iffiness” about the whole thing. The count is in debt and needs Fedora’s fortune.
When Vlad is suddenly carted in, shot, and transported to the bedroom – neatly screened here by an opaque curtain so the doctor’s vain ministrations can be seen – there is immediate suspicion that the terrorist Nihilist movement was responsible. The Count is the son of the Chief of Police.
A letter had been delivered to the count by a mysterious old woman the previous day, but is now missing. A stranger had visited earlier and been left alone before abruptly leaving. “Ipanoff” intones Dimitri, the porter. That would be Loris Ipanoff, the next-door neighbour. Fedora, a sort of righteous Mme Clouseau, concludes Ipanoff is the assassin. She sends Gretch, the Chief of police to arrest him.
We are in the ballroom of Fedora’s Paris mansion. She has lured Ipanoff, now a political exile in Paris, to her party to extract a confession from him. Ipanoff is falling in love with her. Fedora has a cross around her neck. It is admired. She tells everyone “it contains a potion that will end all life’s ills”. Spoiler alert for Act III. At least it doesn’t contain a TB virus.
The company is distracted by the playing of a pianist prodigy, Lazinski, a long-haired cousin of Chopin. Good sideswipe joke at uppity salons by librettist Arturo Colautti.
Alone, Loris admits to killing the count, but will not say why. News arrives of a Nihilist attempt on the Czar’s life. Fedora begins a letter to the Chief of Police, accusing Loris of murder.
Letters play a huge part in this opera. Mostly as plot devices for creating misunderstanding and mayhem. They come, they go, they are stolen. They drive the story on. Unless the director ensures the audience is in on the complexities the opera remains a mystery to the audience. All letters were accounted for in this production and, with the help of subtitles of utmost clarity, understood.
The damning letter, includes the name of Valeriano, Lori’s brother, who Fedora considers an accomplice. The letter is dispatched and only then does Loris explain that the dead count was his wife’s lover. When he mysteriously visited the count’s house he was on the hunt for evidence of his wife’s infidelity, found the letter confirming an assignation. He confronted the count, who shot first. Loris fired back in self-defence.
He throws down the love letters proving the count’s dishonour, Fedora reads them and is devastated. She nearly married a double-dealer.
Now, here’s the good part, the twist that only opera can sustain with anything approaching a straight face. Fedora realises she is in love with Loris – what? – but that she has also baited the police trap for his eventual arrest. She can’t admit that, so asks him to stay the night instead of leaving the house and facing certain arrest.
Now, we are treated to what I think are the most powerful two minutes in opera, Giordano’s aria Amor ti vieta. If you don’t know it – hit that link!! Loris professes his love for Fedora in one of the most lyrical, heart touching professions of love I have ever heard.
I remember picking up a Jussi Bjorling CD in the 70s, for his version of The Pearl Fishers’ Duet, with Robert Merrill. Still the best there is. Then, came this unknown snippet, Amor ti vieta. The world stood still. There are no repeats, Loris sings of his love and stops. The impact is stunning.
I’m glad to say, years have not dulled the impact and Beczala carried on where Bjorling, Pavarotti and Domingo left off. I was, once more turned into a quivering heap. I just made it – with a little help from my guest – back to the Metropolitan Opera Club for a restorative interval ice cream.
Everyone is in yodel gear. Swiss Alpine villa. Bliss. News arrives that the chief of police in Moscow has seized on Fedora’s letter and arrested Lori’s brother. In summer floods, the river Neva rose and drowned him, prompting his and Loris’ mother to die of a stroke.
Loris, who has been out on a healthy stroll, returns, musing about a failure of correspondence from his brother and mother. Fedora twists guiltily.
A telegram arrives telling Loris he has been pardoned by the Tsar. Good news. Then a letter from a friend, Dr Boroff – told you there were lots of letters – with the news of his mother and brother’s deaths. Bad news. And that he, Boroff, was setting out to Switzerland with news of the identity of the original letter writer who fingered him for the count’s murder. Worrying news – for Fedora.
Fedora begs Loris to have mercy on the guilty woman, but bangs on about it for so long Loris suddenly realises it’s her! Boroff arrives with the proof, Fedora, unseen, drinks the poison from the necklace, and asks for Loris’ forgiveness with her dying breath.
This is the heavily redacted version. For the full-on verismo, complex experience, read the complete synopsis here. It’s all over in the blink of an eye – 2hrs 25 minutes run time.
McVicar is at the top of his game. The set morphed from one country to another, yet held some constants, for example a portrait of the dead count haunting the whole performance. He uses the depth of the Met stage to full effect and is a master of trompe l’oeil. In Act I the count’s bedroom, always hidden in other production’s I have seen, was canted at an angle, allowing a full view of the vain attempts to resuscitate him.
The pianist Lazinsky entertained the Paris salon guests far back, allowing the main action to go on unhindered. The tone of the set was lighter than in other recent McVicar productions and, I think, the better for it.
Peter Gelb, Met General Manager, staged Fedora only because Yoncheva and Beczala agreed to take on the roles. Around them he assembled other fabulous voices, notably Italian soprano, Rosa Feola, who sang Fedora’s feckless cousin, Olga. To acclaim, she sang Gilda in this season’s Rigoletto and she played the light, comic role of Olga with her feckless lovers, including Lazinski, to perfection.
Her ability to act the pert ingenue would make her a perfect choice for Marie in the next Met production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment.
Italian Maestro, Marco Armiliato, has conducted 500 performances of 25 operas for the Met since his debut in 1998. It was no surprise that the Met orchestra gave its all for him. All in all, this was a truly memorable production of a neglected work that, in the right hands, is up there with the best in the repertoire.
And, yes. The hat got its name from the opera and has outshone Fedora in popular appeal ever since. Why? Because Sarah Bernhardt wore one in the stage play version of the work and the hat was adopted as an emblem of feminine feistiness. Princess Fedora as a suffragette. Well, not really.
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