Swans Commentary » swans.com March 22, 2010  



Ruminations On Rusalka, The Ring, Cyrano, And Shreker - Part II


by Isidor Saslav





(Ruminations - Part I)


(Swans - March 22, 2010)   After Wagner's Ring in 2004, on a more recent operatic visit to NY in 2005 I was engaged with Franco Alfano's (1875 - 1954) Cyrano de Bergerac (1936), revived by the Metropolitan Opera as a vehicle for Placido Domingo. Edmund Rostand's (1868 - 1918) original play itself is currently (in 2010) at the New York State Theater and was broadcast nationwide recently over public television. I was pleased to encounter the rarity of its operatic version, especially to see what Alfano's own style might have been like, since all we ever had heard of his works was his completion of Puccini's (1858 - 1924) Turandot after the composer's death in 1924. While I was taken with much of the opera it definitely did not sit well with the three chief critics, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, Martin Bernheimer of The Financial Times, and Alex Ross of The New Yorker. Here is a paraphrase of Tommasini's review and my rejoinder to its various parts (the rejoinder no doubt unpublished.):

May 16, 2005

To the Editor, The New York Times:

Having flown from Texas to hear and see the Metropolitan Opera's Cyrano de Bergerac I would like to take issue with what I read in Mr. Tommasini's review today:

(Tommasini) No need to revise 20th-century operatic history. Cyrano is no neglected masterpiece; it's not even a good opera.

(Saslav) How unfortunate for your readers that instead of this superficially disdainful assessment of Alfano's Cyrano written by Mr. Tommasini that Mr. Albert Innaurato was not commissioned to write this review. Mr. Innaurato's magnificent essay which appeared in the Met's program on neglected 20th century operas displayed a more sympathetic regard to what audiences at the Met have been missing all these years. What a shame that the Met is put down by Mr. Tommasini for trying to make amends but not having chosen the "right" composers. (See below.)

(T) The Met produced it because Domingo wanted it to be his 121st role. After 600 performances at the Met he should get what he wants. But Alfano's music for the completion of Turandotwas "clunky."

(S) Surely Mr. Tommasini (and anyone else who bothered to read the program) knows that it is not Alfano's work on display at the end of Turandot but Alfano as shamelessly cut by Arturo Toscanini, the conductor of the world premiere. Was Mr. Tommasini there in 1982 when the version that Alfano actually wrote was finally heard by the public?

(T) Alfano's Risurrezione of 1904 though popular for decades seems today a "potboiler."

(S) This remark reminds one of George Bernard Shaw's condemnation of his fellow music critics who upon the death of Verdi in 1901 began to assert a great familiarity with the deceased composer's early and obscure works when they had no more idea of these works than the "tunes that Miriam in the Bible had timbrelled on the shores of the Dead Sea." Mr. Tommasini's inaccurate dismissal of Cyrano de Bergerac as "not even a good opera" makes me really wish to see that "potboiler" Risurrezione. Where did Mr. Tommasini have the pleasure of seeing Risurrezione so as to be able to assess it? I wish I had been there too.

(T) Alfano's coziness with the Mussolini regime precludes our appreciating any of his music. His attempts to please his audiences bring forth reminiscences here and there of his youth in Leipzig and Paris.

(S) Yes, and these are the parts which make the opera so interesting, and more than just "here and there." And why should a composer not try to please his audiences? Obviously Mr. Tommasini has a political bone still to pick with Alfano with regards to his having worked and composed in Italy during the Mussolini regime. Is he also among those who put down Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) for composing in Germany and Austria during the Hitler regime and therefore denigrating Strauss's later operas as well?

(T) Here Tommasini recapitulates the plot of the play and admits that despite a thin melodic gift Alfano's setting of the more subdued scenes are rich and admirable.

(S) Here I do agree with Mr. Tommasini's negativity somewhat. The moments of romantic ecstasy called for by the second act situation (and by the third act as well in the military camp) did not rise to the occasion I thought. Alfano for all his merits of subtlety was at these moments no Wagner or Puccini. Though with repeated hearing these moments might become more appreciated.

(T) Tommasini puts down Alfano's crowd scenes as being reminiscent of Debussy and Richard Strauss.

(S) What nonsense! These are the most effective moments in the score. Each crowd scene culminates with satisfying exuberance and finality. In these scenes the opera is at its most thrilling. Yes one does hear reminiscences of Debussy and Strauss. But this is evidence of Alfano's musical progressivism, not an occasion for a putdown! These parts of the opera reminded me of a more harmonically inventive Korngold (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1897 - 1957) with their cinematic flair.

(T) Tommasini characterizes Alfano's harmonies as "unmoored" and "incoherent" full of "random turns" and "shifting."

(S) Exactly. It's these "shifting harmonies" which refuse to become conventional that lend originality and interest to Alfano's musical language.

(T) Tommasini puts down Domingo's skill as a sword fighter.

(S) Actually the sword-fighting scenes were excellently choreographed and nimbly executed.

(T) Tommasini praises Domingo's acting.

(S) We certainly agree on that.

(T) All the other participants are praised by Tommasini.

(S) I agreed with that as well.

(T) Tommasini berates the Met's choice of the unusual because he has other candidates for presentation like Michael Tippett (1905 - 1998), Hans Werner Henze (1926 - ), Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992), "or several other 20th-century giants. Lucky Alfano has Mr. Domingo pushing for him."

(S) Now the reasons for Mr. Tommasini's absurd dismissal of Alfano become apparent. He simply has his own agenda he would like to put forward. Instead of Mr. Tommasini's composers, study Mr. Innaurato's essay to discover works the Met should be reviving and putting forward: Wolf-Ferrari (1876 - 1948), d'Álbert (1864 - 1932), Montemezzi (1875 - 1952), Korngold (1897 - 1957), Pizzetti (1880 - 1968), Respighi (1879 - 1936), Ghedini (1892 - 1965), Shreker (1878 - 1934), Pfitzner (1869 - 1949), and of course, Alfano himself. When do we get to hear Risurrezione?

Thank you.

Isidor Saslav

As a result of my returning to New York on so frequent occasions in recent years I was able to re-establish my old connection albeit by e-mail only to Martin Bernheimer. For some decades Martin's reviews on operatic subjects have been the gold standard in this field. First as critic for The Los Angeles Times, later for The Financial Times and Opera News in New York, his reviews and critiques have sparked discussion and often ire in the recipients of his barbs. We first got to know one another as fellow students at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Munich in 1958-59. He was of course into the vocal, I into the violin field. But my many visits to the Bayrische Staatsoper gave us plenty to talk about. In subsequent years we caught up with each other in Los Angeles, New York, and at the Round Top Festival in Texas. His review of Cyrano was equally unenthusiastic:

The Financial Times, May 16, 2005 - Arts & Ideas - The Critics

Cyrano de Bergerac
Metropolitan Opera, New York

You know the old refrain. "Whatever Pláci wants, Pláci gets...."

Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera, Plácido Domingo got to rhapsodise through an inflated proboscis, pine for an elusive love, swagger, stagger and die - always beautifully - on behalf of good old, self-sacrificing Cyrano de Bergerac. The esoteric vehicle, completed by Franco Alfano in 1936 and, it is claimed, never before performed in North America, was exhumed for the overachieving tenorissimo at the twilight of his singing career. Now 64 (iconoclasts still debate the official statistic), he will no doubt flourish as impresario, conductor and badness knows what else long after his vocal cords have rusted.

The Cyrano production, shared with the Royal Opera and scheduled for Covent Garden next May, is a pretty tribute. Francesca Zambello has staged it with fidelity to picturesque tradition, avoiding both gimmickry and anachronism in the process. Peter J. Davison has designed sparse sets that function attractively even when they invoke stylized window-dressing. Anita Yavich's lavish costumes respect the period. Marco Armiliato conducts with a keen mind and sensitive hand (Mark Elder succeeds him in London). The large cast works diligently. If only the object of all this affectionate labor were a masterpiece. It isn't.

Alfano, remembered for better or worse (probably worse) as the chameleon drafted to complete Turandot after Puccini's death, was a solid craftsman. Given a libretto by Henri Cain that isolates key episodes from Rostand's play, he provided neat and gentle illustrations, never overpowering the text. The score rambles in lush slush one moment, returns to impressionistic water-treading the next. Rare climaxes flirt with Wagnerian thrust. The vocal lines, predicated on parlando, offer limited surprises. Ultimately, the opera decorates the narrative without enhancing it. If this innocuous mélange ends up suggesting movie-music, at least it suggests good movie-music. Like little Oliver, however, we want more.

Undaunted and ever-enterprising, Domingo makes the most - ok, makes much - of the grateful central challenge. Having apparently savoured the cinematic panache of Gérard Depardieu and José Ferrer (maybe a little Steve Martin too), he savours the virtue of restraint. This enhances his pathos, especially when confronting the potential bathos of the death-scene. His timbre, dark and tough, gleaming and resilient, betrays few signs of age, though some linear adjustments may accommodate a compromised top range. His French is clear enough to accentuate a stubbornly Spanish accent. Never mind. This was no night to celebrate Gallic purity on any level.

Sondra Radvanovsky loomed sweetly in Shirley Temple curls as Roxane. Her generous vocalism embraced exquisite pianissimo phrases at one extreme, not-so-exquisite screams at another. It hardly mattered; the first nighters adored her. Raymond Very, the second tenor, looked and sounded handsome as Christian, the dumb-blond lug who loves Roxane both unwisely and unwell. Anthony Michaels-Moore blustered aristocratically as the essentially gauche De Guiche.

Still, when all was sung and done, this remained the Plácido Domingo Show, impure and simple. As such, it was engrossing if hardly earth-shattering. In any case, it was better than Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, our hero's previous personal indulgence. Even in opera - especially in opera - one must be grateful for large favours.

My reply in turn was:

Hello again Martin: I've gotten around at last to opening your attachment with your Cyrano review. Many thanks again for sending it. I can see that the critic who once wrote "I wonder who's Kissinger now?" re John Adams (see below) has lost none of his (in this case highly apropos) rapier-like thrust. My first question to you is: on what level of accomplishment or in what other musico-dramatic style would you have considered a setting of Cyrano a triumphant success? Surely, music that underlines a great dramatic text without overpowering it (as you put it) has succeeded greatly already. Isn't that Claude Debussy's (1862 - 1918) virtue in Pelleas et Melisande (1902) after all? But at least you didn't belabor Alfano for his possible political sympathies a la AT. I get the feeling you just don't care for the play in the first place.

Be that as it may, my goal as an opera fan and traveler (about 50 operas in various parts of the world 2003-2005) is to catch up on all the operas I've never seen or played in my long career as concertmaster for about 75 different productions over the years. And an obscure item like Cyrano, a complete opera by the man who finished Turandot is like a gift from the skies in experiencing opera history. Looking forward to October, if not sooner. Cordially as always, Isidor

The reference to "Kissinger" referred to one of Martin's particularly brilliant bon mots. When John Adams's Nixon in China was premiered by the Houston Opera in 1987 there seemed to be some trouble keeping a single Kissinger in place so several singers got to take over that role. Martin, after reviewing the opera, ended with that final flip: "I wonder who's Kissinger now?" parodying the title of that famous American popular song by Joseph E. Howard and Hough and Adams of 1909, "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?"

The Saslav/Bernheimer exchange continued:

Hello Martin: Now that I've read Alex Ross's review of Cyrano in the New Yorker I see that the score is critics 3, Alfano 0. But AR just like AT had his list of operas the Met should have done instead of Alfano's. And I suppose you had your own list too, though I don't remember reading it. I suspect this disgruntlement on the part of the critics at never seeing their own favorites at the Met instead of somebody else's choice (Domingo's) and not having the power to sway the Met authorities as to their opinions might be behind some of this pooh-poohing of Alfano. (By the way, there is a website called the House of Opera which actually offers CDs not only of Cyrano but of Risurezione as well. Perhaps I'll get the latter and see if I agree with its early listeners who gave it thumbs up.)

Now I too have my list. And just because the Met doesn't put on Rossini's (1792 - 1868) William Tell (1829) or any of the Meyerbeers (Giacomo Meyerbeer, 1791 - 1864) on any regular basis, or Wagner's Die Feen (1833) or Das Liebesverbot (1834) (Wagner's first and second operas respectively), nor Richard Strauss's Guntram (1894) or Feuersnot (1901) (ditto for Strauss) doesn't make me tend to put down others they may choose equally rarely in performance. Besides Cyrano I certainly appreciated Berlioz's (1803 - 1869) Benvenuto Cellini, (1838), a Met premiere in 2003, and Fromental Halevy's (1799 - 1862) La Juive, (1835) a first production in 65 years, and Strauss's Die Aegyptische Helena (1928), a first performance in 80 years. But if I'm falsely attributing such a motive to you or your colleagues I apologize.

Yours operatically, Isidor

And the final Bernheimer riposte:

Huge rush. I'd have no problem with the Met doing Cyrano if I really thought they regarded it as an unworthily neglected masterpiece. The real issue seems to be accommodation of an aging divo who has lost his top notes, and even has to rewrite this vehicle to suit his vocal limitations. He's lucky here because few of us have a basis of comparison, but the vocal line in the new Alagna video obviously goes much higher. I'm all for seeking out lost treasures, not to mention trying out new treasures, and I know that there have to be disappointments. But given the expense involved, and the long list of items ignored by the Met, and the rarity of such ventures, this choice seems a bit dubious on more than one level. You do us an injustice, however, when you imply that critics (all critics?) have an agenda. We don't, any more than violinists or conductors or chefs or gardeners have agendas. There are, of course, good critics and bad critics, just as there are good fiddlers and bad...



(Read Part III)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 22, 2010