February 7, 2023: Fedora – Met Opera Live in HD

On January 21 an Amarillo audience was privileged to see Umberto Giordano’s much maligned and underperformed opera Fedora, live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. In fact, this was only the sixth staging of this opera, dating back to the first in 1906.

That performance paired the incomparable Enrico Caruso with the flamboyant, beautiful vocal mediocrity Lina Cavallieri. Their passionate love duet and protracted kiss during Act II was encored! The rigidity of Victorian morality apparently didn’t apply to either the Met stage or the audience.

This diva personified verismo, the Italian operative style emerging in the 1880’s for a two decade run including France and Germany. This genre, which framed Fedora, coupled the consequences of the roiling social and political tensions of the day with over the top personal drama to an art form.

Sometimes the ensuing plot, artistic license notwithstanding, is a hard swallow, like putting down one of Amarillo’s Big Texan’s 72 oz steaks in a hour. Therein lies the chief century-plus criticism of Fedora.

Consider: fiance (Princess Fedora Romanov) happily contemplating married life when her intended is brought to her mortally wounded. At his death she vows revenge on the killer, but then falls in love with him, but only after outing his political renegade of a brother to the police. The brother dies in police custody, the killer, now lover, reveals that he caught her late fiance with his own wife, and that he killed the unfaithful fellow in self defense. No word about the bad wife.

As Fedora learns that her scheme for revenge has succeeded too well – the mother of her lover and his dead brother has died of grief, she does a volte face and says “My bad,” and asks her lover whether he could forgive the woman who did this to him. When he says “Heck no!” she takes poison and dies in her lover’s arms, at which point he does his own volte face and forgives her.

Two-fingered down-the-throat yack!

The palsied plot notwithstanding, Fedora has three factors that make this production probably the best in its long history of deliberate snubbing.

The two stars almost make their bipolar characters believable. Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva’s voice of liquid gold captures the mercurial princess’s capacity to immediately switch gears from pure love to pure hate. Rigoletto’s La Donna e’ Mobile in the extreme. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala credibly portrays a different pain set, with the betrayal of his wife, the murder of her lover and the deaths of his brother and mother. The torment crescendos to forgiveness with a dying Fedora in his arms.

The stage sets definitely set the mood and color of each act. Act I is set in the doom and gloom of Russia, the muted lighting apparently congenial to the darkness of theRussian soul, as described by Dostoyevsky. Act II brings up the lights in La Belle Epoque Paris, and is full of life and color, and a measure of comic relief afforded by the narcissistic Olga. Act III rests in Switzerland’s idyllic Alpenscape, where all is joy and peace and love, until it’s not. It is in this bucolic fantasyland where good Fedora learns the results of bad Fedora’s plot.

The historical context of the opera was spot-on as the premier was in the twilight of the Romanov’s and the subtext of the plot must have made Russian ex-pats squirm. The drama’s narrative unfolded in the police state of Czar Alexander III, who overturned many of the reforms of his progressively-inclined, but assassinated father, Alexander II. Political activism and anarchism were considered the ultimate in political incorrectness in this reactionary rule.

Contrast that with the funfest of France, which had finally divested itself of monarchy and embraced democratic rule. Factor in Impressionism with its splendid variegations, along with the Can-Can and a perfect counterpoint to the oppression of Mother Russia appears.

More relevant historical trivia: Sara Bernhardt starred as Princess Fedora in the Sardou play when it premiered in the US in 1889, and famously wore this hat, which was adopted by the suffragettes. Ultimately it crossed over the gender divide, so that no self-respecting adult male in the 50’s and 60’s would go out in public without his Fedora on top.

Finally, the Amarillo audience rejoiced in seeing their own Katherine Fong, Assistant Principal Second Violin, to the right of Conductor Marco Armiliato, and all of this taking place in the hall built and named-for Amarillo native Sybil B. Harrington!

That we here in Cowboy Country can see, and take some credit for such amazing opera, is but one more reason we say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

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