Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wisdom in Love Comes Too Late

Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac
Metropolitan Opera
May 10, 2017

Love lurks so near, unbeknownst to the beloved
Photo credit: Met Opera
Roxane is one of those drop dead gorgeous girls who sends every man’s heart a-swooning. The problem is that most of those men are shallow, self-centered pricks. Except for one. Cyrano de Bergerac has it all. He’s dashing and courageous, witty and gallant. He’s as good with words as he is with a sword. The one thing he lacks is the looks to match his finer qualities. In fact, he’s grotesque. But we all know the story of the man with the well-endowed snout. Franco Alfano’s 1936 opera makes good use of the character and his plight to tell a story of sentimental education.

Running on alternate nights on the very same stage is Wagner’s story of a young woman’s quixotic crush on the tragic hero from her favorite bedtime story, The Flying Dutchman. In that case the heroine’s folly led to her suicide. In this case the woman comes late to discovering that there is more to life and happiness in love than just a pretty face.

A leader among men, Cyrano has everything except good looks
Photo credit: Met Opera 
Soprano Jennifer Rowley stepped in for the Roxane role when Patricia Racette cancelled due to illness. It was one of those strokes of luck (so common in the opera business), where a young cover is given the chance of a lifetime to step in as leading lady at the Met. Lucky her, and lucky us, since Ms. Rowley was a revelation, displaying a harmonious, full, fluid sound that ensconced the listener in its supple musicality. She also has the power to ride the wave of Alfano’s surging orchestrations when necessary. In her big apology aria in Act III, when she begs pardon of her beloved Christian – and husband-of-a-few-days – for loving him only for his good looks. Her voice soared up over swelling crests of the music in a heartfelt plea for his forgiveness.

"Here I am to save the day," says Rowley pinch hitting as Roxane
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Rowley’s sudden star turn in Act III was just a prelude to the emotional outpouring of the final act. She was incredibly moving in her realization that it was not Christian whom she loved, but rather Cyrano. And a becoming exterior had little to do with it. In fact, she had been distracted by the shimmering surface of the world of appearances. A beautiful soul adorned with a rapturous way with words is all she ever wanted all along.

Rowley is also a fine actress with a lively and charismatic stage presence. According to a recent interview she has her eyes set on beefier Verdi and Donizetti roles (our personal favorites), so I will be looking forward to hearing more from her in the future.

Alagna waxes poetic as Cyrano
Photo credit: Met Opera
In the title role, tenor Roberto Alagna was effortlessly endowed with the gift of eloquence. The beauty of his “verses” in each of his scenes of poetic improvisation was matched by his delivery as a singer. Alagna is a regular at the Met. We have seen him in at least a half dozen productions over the years, if not more. Even if, for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, he is not my favorite voice in circulation at the moment, he is, nevertheless, a solid, hunky-voiced tenor, and all of that bravado and bravura was put to good use here.

Cyrano and his better half
Photo credit: Ken Howard
He had the moving, manly, melting quality that this role calls for, especially in the climax of Act II when he is serenading the beautiful Roxane from the shadows beneath her balcony. Musically, Alfano set this moment with the strumming of a harp alternating with arpeggios that served to heighten his eloquent romantic reaching out for the woman he loves and his words clambered and climbed to cross the distance. It also features a swelling in the strings as he really poured on his inventive poetic charm. It is a beautiful moment and only partially trite. The prolonged amount of time invested in this passage of the opera hits close to home for all the themes of the opera. Passages like this one are all about the timeless need to put into words your feelings in a way that is sufficiently heartfelt and sincere to get your feelings across, because we don’t feel in words or through language but rather through the more brute, baser emotions.

The grotesque gentleman will pursue his object to the death
Photo credit: Met Opera
However, the Cyrano character really climaxes dramatically and musically in opera’s grand finale. In the closing movements of the fourth and final act, Cyrano humbly asks Roxane to show him Christian’s last letter, which he can recite from heart because he was the one who penned the sentiments found therein. And he is able to bring them to life with all the flesh-full sincerity he had endowed them with in the first place. In my opinion, the whole opera exists for just this heart-wrenching, tear-inducing moment. It was incredibly moving. It had us on the edge of our seats. His words escaped his mouth with heaving sighs and great beauty. Alagna has never sounded so good. While Cyrano pours forth his passionate longing for an unrequited love for the last time, the last rays of the twilit scene danced against the backdrop until the hero of the story breathes his last.

Act I sets featured layers of spectacular detail
Photo credit: Met Opera
Francesca Zambello’s 2005 production was spectacular in its opening scene, set as a sectional view of a theater (stage, opera boxes and all), with life happening on every level, acting as a truly wonderful and rich tableaux. It seemed like the entire set design budget went into this first scene though. The sets for the remaining acts of the opera were far more bare bones, coming across as cheap instead of stylized. Definitely not the sort of production one expects at the Met, but that first act sure was spectacular.

– Lei & Lui

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