It was one of Queler’s good nights. You know the bad ones, the reputedly great unknown score that, like a defective Frankenstein’s monster, refuses to come to life under her listless thunderbolt, the overparted “name” star, the clueless newbies – but there have also been great Queler nights, where a forgotten masterpiece made everybody’s eyes shine (while we wonder why on earth this is obscure), familiar singers do things you never dreamed they could do, and the unknown names are names everyone will know someday, are, well, great opera nights. Edgar was a blend of familiar (Puccini melody) and unfamiliar (but those tunes were better in other scores), with a star giving a star performance, a couple of promising youngsters, and an oldster out of depth and style but camping it up to thrill us.
Edgar is like some disreputable relation you always enjoy running into for their exuberance and oddity, and are grateful not to meet at every family party. Puccini’s second opera and first full-length effort deserves its obscurity (which is legend); one hears it nowadays mostly from a lack of anything else to scrape from the exhausted barrel of the later Italian line. (Though another association, Teatro Gratticielo, has done an impressive job resuscitating verismo works of unexpected worthiness and charm.)
The problem for Puccini – as no one knew at the time but we easily detect in hindsight – is that he didn’t quite know how to tug our heartstrings with a male protagonist. The women here are a study in contrast (goody-goody soprano, wicked, sexy mezzo), but neither has enough room, musically or dramatically, to become a living, memorable figure. Why is Tigrana such a shallow sensualist? Because she’s a Gypsy foundling? But Carmen, to take another such, has a range, an inner life, a distinctive outlook in any single act of Bizet’s opera that makes Tigrana seem an irritable child. Why is Fidelia so loving, no matter the provocation? Is it because of her name? The story takes us no deeper than that. (Again: compare Bizet’s Micaela, a fully-rounded person with a comprehensible inner life.) Puccini could make a drama out of sympathetic or unsympathetic women – but he could not (at this early stage) make one from a pair of cardboard shadows.
Therefore the outpourings of self-disgusted melody from Puccini’s protagonist (though they produce a terrific night for the right tenor, and Marcello Giordani, our best Puccini tenor nowadays, was in clover) may arouse applause but they never create interest in the outcome of this bitter little story of a man caught between a saint and a whore. The only question: will Tigrana stab herself? Or will she stab the neurotic Edgar? Or the innocent Fidelia? is not very interesting. (Which would you choose, if your objective was to shock your audience? And that was always Puccini’s aspiration.)
Queler has conducted this score before, an occasion I barely remember: it is difficult to imagine Renata Scotto sinking her teeth into Fidelia to any great degree (there’s so little meat). Edgar is a lush score with verismo outpourings but also a grand concertato near the end of Act I left over from bel canto style (Puccini never wrote such a thing again) and several “ecclesiastical” numbers (vespers, a requiem) that were perfect for his family tradition.
Giordani sang with a bright, metallic sheen and an ease conspicuously lacking in his Met Ernani. It was a performance of little variety, agreeably loud (and OONY regulars like it loud), but with some interesting colors during the character’s scenes of teeth-gnash self-loathing, which include a sermon in disguise at his own funeral.
Latonia Moore, one of Queler’s stable of rising young sopranos, has a sumptuous, beautiful, crowd-pleasing voice, but it was not clear from separate, limpid, often wonderful phrases if she can put things together into a fully rounded presentation because sweet Fidelia offers such slight opportunity to do so. But the notes themselves were so wonderfully produced that one longed to hear her in more familiar repertory to see if she’s the real thing – too many ladies have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the Verdi/Puccini soprano we all long to die for.
Jennifer Larmore, alarmingly pudgy a couple of years ago, is now alarmingly rail-thin. Her acting was suitably over the top for Tigrana the heartless vamp (Theda Bara couldn’t have outplayed her), but the voice (never a Puccini-verismo voice) was not up to the role: the luscious dark colors that floored us when she first came on the scene are completely gone, and she sounded thin, overstretched, unsensuous. This role was written for a blockbuster mezzo – where was Dolora Zajick when we needed her? (Stephanie Blythe or Olga Borodina would have had fun with it, too. And all three have sung with Queler.) Larmore was all pose and gown, and she appeared to have stolen the gown from Karita Mattila’s recital wardrobe.
Stephen Gaertner, a frequent figure in concert operas and a recent Met debutante (Enrico, Melot), was impressive as Fidelia’s manic brother, Frank. “Parli il pugnale,” he and Giordani cried at one point – “Our swords will speak for us!” – when they are about to do dubious battle over Tigrana’s much contested (living) body. That tells us right there that the story is too archaic for the era Puccini lived in.
Fortunately, the swords did not do the singing.