Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Cyrano de Bergerac

This evening sees the opening of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met. It's being marketed as Puccini-like, but the comparison, in my view, over-simplifies the work of both composers. To me, Alfano's Cyrano seems a curious blend of romantic structure and dramatic spectacle, and experimentation in orchestral explorations of the central characters' psyches. I'd be inclined to say that it provides, as Alexandra Wilson has suggested for the late works of Puccini, a sort of alternate vision of how modern opera might have developed in the Italian tradition. From a scholarly perspective, it's received comparatively little attention, even when measured against Alfano's other works. I was surprised to discover this, given my personal fascination with how Alfano's opera functions as an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1898 play, which is itself a homage to the five-act dramas of France's golden age of theatre in the seventeenth century. I grew up with an edition illustrated by Dubout, and, later, wore out a VHS of the Gérard Dépardieu film; this is one opera I came to via its source text, rather than the other way around.

Cyrano de Bergerac, subtitled as a commedia eroica, was first performed in the Paris of 1936. I thought that the choice to write an opera based on a heroic fighter of doomed causes in the increasingly totalitarian Europe of the 1930s might have been a political one; but Alfano's ties to Mussolini belie this naively romantic hypothesis. The libretto, which preserves much of Rostand's gorgeously ornate language, is by Henri Cain, a frequent librettist of Massenet's, whose texts include Cendrillon, La Navarraise, and Don Quichotte. For me, as an aficionado of the play, it is curious to hear a text with such strong rhythms, such strong music of its own, orchestrated for the opera stage. But the results are often strikingly poignant. One of the things I find most interesting about Cyrano, in fact, is how the music sometimes undermines the apparent optimism of the text. Trumpets promise discord and warlike tumult even as Cyrano and Christian, the piece's rival tenors, embrace for the first time. When the two men promise brotherhood, the orchestra foretells disaster.


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