Friday, March 11, 2011


Estates Theater
March 10
March 8

Lust on the loose in a landscape of the mind.

There was every reason not to expect much from last night’s performance of Edgar. The opera, Puccini’s second, is considered an inferior early work, interesting only as a precursor to later successes like La bohème and Tosca. And the production came from the F.X. Šaldy Theater in Liberec, another of the minor-league companies participating in the Opera 2011 festival.

But that’s the beauty of the festival – you never know when you’ll discover a hidden gem. Edgar not only held its own as entertaining opera, but showed how even the flimsiest material can become something special in capable hands.

Based on a lyric poem by French author Alfred de Musset, Edgar tells the story of a man torn between two loves: Fidelia, a virtuous village girl, and Tigrana, a fiery gypsy temptress à la Carmen. Fidelia’s brother Frank also longs for Tigrana, setting in motion a series of romantic complications that end in tragedy. The opera is essentially a melodrama played out by cardboard characters, set to overwrought music with plenty of emotional impact but no finesse.

Or so it seems. Digging beneath the surface, director Martin Otava found something darker and more compelling – a Freudian drama of a man whose id, ego and superego are at war. Tigrana leers and storms about the stage as pure lust, the basest emotions unleashed; Frank, after a knife fight with Edgar, becomes the voice of reason and higher intelligence; and Fidelia is the ideal in between, the balance point between rational and irrational. In that framework, the cardboard characters make perfect sense – as symbols or stereotypes, not flesh-and-blood creations.

The set was a landscape of the mind, a collision of oddly angled columns, walls and steps with stark elements like a single blossoming tree. Clearly inspired by the work of Josef Svoboda, it neatly blended surreal and abstract elements, and made bold use of contrasting colors – hot red for Tigrana, virginal white for Fidelia, and all-black or all-white costumes for the chorus/villagers that might have been designed by Dali. With a background screen changing colors to match or contrast the action in the foreground, the overall effect was like being in a dream.

That sensation was reinforced by the music, which runs at a fever-high emotional pitch for most of the opera. On a literal level, it seems ridiculously overheated, at times bordering on bombastic. But as a soundtrack for a psychodrama, it’s perfect.

And the singers were outstanding. Lívía Obručnik-Vénosová (Fidelia) and Kateřina Jalovcová (Tigrana), both regulars on the State Opera and National Theater stages in Prague, gave bravura performances. Obručnik-Vénosová’s crystalline soprano was an ideal fit for her role, and heartbreakingly beautiful in the final act. Jalovcová’s smoky mezzo was threatening from the moment she walked onstage. Tenor Rafael Alvarez (Edgar), born and trained in Mexico, and baritone Anatolij Orel (Frank), born in the Ukraine and trained in Kiev, provided solid counterpoints.

Last night’s performance was also a reminder that, while Edgar may not get much respect, it offers a great primer on Puccini, with clear musical indications of what lies ahead. In fact, during rewrites of the original score, the composer took out sections and used them later in Tosca. And the funeral march in Act III of Edgar was good enough to be played at Puccini’s real-life funeral in 1924, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Besides, how can you not love an opera that features not one, but two murders in the final minute?

On Tuesday, the Silesian Theatre of Opava brought its production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila to the same stage, with less satisfying results. After a promising grand opera-style opening with a chorus of Israelites pleading for deliverance beneath a giant flaming Star of David, the performance slowed and sagged under the weight of weak direction and choreography – the latter a serious detriment in an opera that features two major dance sequences, including the famous bacchanal in the third act.

Kisun Kim and Ilona Kaplová turned in heroic singing efforts in the title roles, but the real musical star of the evening was conductor Damiano Binetti, who drew fine textures and colors from the orchestra, and did an impressive job of following the singers when they needed a moment or two’s grace. The chorus was also notably good in a work whose spine is complex choral passages. And how can you not enjoy an opera that ends with the hero literally bringing down the house?

For a closer look at the F.X. Šaldy production of Edgar:

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