Fedora (1898) ranks as the second-most popular of Umberto Giordano’s twelve operas, after Andrea Chénier. A modest claim to be sure, but the work is the subject this season of new productions by two of the world’s leading opera companies, La Scala in Milan, where it opened on October 15, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it will occupy the traditional New Year’s Eve slot in a new production.

It would be a stretch to call Fedora a masterpiece. Critics have traditionally looked askance at the generation of Italian composers that followed Verdi—Giordano, Puccini, Mascagni, Cilea, etc.—despite the popularity of many of their works. Fedora is adapted from the 1882 play of the same name by Victorien Sardou, who had his own share of critical detractors, exemplified by George Bernard Shaw’s quip “Sardoodledom.” But his play is intriguing because of how it treats an ill-fated love affair between two late-nineteenth-century Russian aristocrats. It has the aura of a thriller, which Arturo Colautti ably replicated in his libretto.

Sonya Yoncheva as Fedora in Fedora at La Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia/Amisano Teatro alla Scala.

More than with the text of most operatic works, which function principally to generate emotional states that trigger musical responses, one can read the text of Colautti’s libretto closely, in a search for clues as to who fatally shot Count Andreyevich on the eve of his wedding to Princess Fedora. Fedora’s obsession with the killer takes her from St. Petersburg to Paris and, finally, rural Switzerland in a journey told with many references to local color.

The opera’s second act is set at a party in Fedora’s Parisian home, to which she has invited Count Ipanov, on whom suspicions have focused. One guest is a Polish pianist said to be Chopin’s nephew and successor. He plays a nocturne (in Chopin’s style but composed by Giordano) while Ipanov is interrogated by the Russian secret police; later, we learn the pianist is a spy. Another guest, the French diplomat De Siriex, sings about the dual nature of Russian women, to which Fedora’s friend Countess Olga counters with a song likening French men to wine. Olga has warded off boredom by becoming a nihilist, a fashionable pursuit, in the style of Turgenev’s character Bazarov in his novel Fathers and Sons. In this ambience, Fedora and Ipanov fall in love, making his exculpatory explanation crucial: self-defense, he claims, also revealing that Andreyevich was only interested in Fedora’s money. But she has already set in motion the mechanism of the secret police, with ultimately tragic results.

The Scala production by Mario Martone, a film director who frequently directs opera in Italy, takes its inspiration from the surrealism of René Magritte. The set itself is composed of elements that could have fallen right out of Magritte’s paintings. The brightly lit house and blue sky of Empire of Light (1953–54) are replicated for the second tableau of the Paris act, and The Menaced Assassin (1927), including its gramophone and mountain vista, serve for the third act’s Swiss setting. Act I, though, seems to take place in a high-rise apartment building, an oddity in St. Petersburg.

The cast of  Fedora at La Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia/Amisano Teatro alla Scala.

On balance, recourse to Magritte produces visually satisfying results, even if his aesthetic does not fit perfectly with the plot’s realism. To be sure, Magritte’s work has an air of mystery, but it also has a sly humor that Martone makes no effort to disguise, sometimes even embellishing it. When Ipanov shows Fedora letters from Andreyevich to his mistress, they flutter down comically from a balcony. And when members of the secret police—shadowy, Magritte-like figures—close in on Ipanov to arrest him, they tiptoe back delicately and cartoonishly after seeing him and Fedora in an embrace.

Ipanov and Fedora’s duet is a high point of the opera, one of a handful of effusive lyrical set pieces, usually short, that find a place, along with diversionary songs, in Giordano’s score. Roberto Alagna (Ipanov) and Sonya Yoncheva (Fedora) sang it with all due passion. Alagna’s appearance in the premiere was his first at La Scala since 2006, when he was booed during a performance of Aida and abruptly left the stage. This time he was cheered after a stirring rendition of the popular aria “Amor ti vieta.” His voice remains in generally good shape and was generously produced, although some phrases were delivered with apparent effort.

Yoncheva, in her role debut, might seem a bit young to be taking on Fedora, at least in comparison to two of her predecessors, Magda Olivero and Mirella Freni, who were both sixty when they first performed the character. But Gemma Bellincioni, the first Fedora, was only thirty-six at the opera’s 1898 Milan premiere. One can hardly complain about seeing a soprano in her prime, as Yoncheva is, especially when the voice has the enveloping warmth and ability to soar in passionate moments, as Yoncheva’s does. Keen acting skills are also required for the role, an expectation set by the great Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who played Fedora in the play’s premiere. “She is femininity personified—with all her sudden changes of mood,” Sardou said of his character. Yoncheva mustered prima donna grandeur when desirable, but her portrayal also had a welcome naturalness. Serena Gamberoni, a sparkling Olga, captured attention whenever she appeared, not least in her bicycle aria, and George Patean sang suavely as De Siriex. Giordano’s dynamic score clearly found the conductor Marco Armiliato in his element. A mainstay of the Met’s Italian repertoire for years, he will be in the pit there on New Year’s Eve.

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