Beauty v. Spirit

Classic Arts Features   Beauty v. Spirit
One of opera's finest examples of post-impressionistic realism arrives in New York next month with the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac. Konrad Dryden looks at the curriculum vitae of this swashbuckling, historically based melodrama.

Initially unveiled at the Porte-Saint-Martin theater in Paris on December 28, 1897, Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac has fascinated audiences through its combination of romantic poetry and a swashbuckling revival of French history reminiscent of Dumas, during an era that reveled in the symbolism of a Maurice Maeterlinck (Pelléas et Mélisande). The partially fictitious legend of Cyrano stresses the importance of character as opposed to physical beauty alone, much in the manner of the world's most cherished and beloved fairy tales.

Cyrano was written to showcase the talents of the Comédie-Française actor Coquelin. Rostand (1868-1918) was initially drawn to the authentic Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) after having read Théophile Gautier's Les Grotesques, in addition to Cyrano's philosophical/futuristic novels Voyage to the Moon and Voyage to the Sun, wherein the poet's sharp mind and biting wit become the same lethal weapons that resurface in his letters. ("God created your tongue for swallowing and not for speaking!") Although Voltaire considered Cyrano "insane" by the time he wrote the work, Cyrano remained a convinced libertine who questioned the Church's autocratic power and sought to clarify religious superstitions. This was a brave step, considering that both his siblings had taken vows.

A great deal of speculation still surrounds the vita of the authentic Cyrano that is far removed from Rostand's elegant portrayal. (His death certificate was not discovered until 1910.) Cyrano was actually struck by a falling piece of wood, the injuries from which eventually led to his death. It remains uncertain whether this was an accident or a successful attempt at murder. He was not of noble birth and some of his love letters were in fact originally addressed to male recipients‹the gender only being changed later.

The elegant and dapper Rostand had enjoyed success with his earlier play La Princesse lointaine (1895) written for Sarah Bernhardt; however, it was the "comédie-héroïque" Cyrano de Bergerac that ensured his lasting fame with some 400 performances between 1897 and 1899. Rostand later recalled that he had written the play "with pleasure," but also with the idea of "fighting against the tendencies of the time." One critic noted with pride that it in fact forced some 1,500 Parisians to alter their scheduled dining hour in order to attend the play's first act.

Cyrano also found its way to the silent screen as early as 1909, the only version that Rostand would be able to enjoy before the infamous "Spanish flu" ended his life nine years later. Orson Welles had hoped to make his own version although this was abandoned when a film starring José Ferrer made its appearance. Cyrano has continued to enjoy great appeal in our own time on both the spoken stage and on the screen thanks to performances of such varied actors as Gérard Depardieu and Steve Martin.

Although the "long-nosed" poet who desperately falls in love with his cousin Roxane, alias Madeleine Robineau, hardly needs introducing, Alfano's opus perhaps does. The Metropolitan Opera had already produced an operatic version by Walter Damrosch during the 1913 season, and he was only one of many composers (Puccini and Arthur Honegger included) who had been attracted to setting this immortal story of unrequited love. Alfano's mother was French and his interest and understanding of that country's literature contributed to his desire in acquiring the work's rights. His operatic version remains the most enduring and successful, and, following performances of the past with singers of such magnitude as Magda Olivero and Ramón Vinay, it is once again gaining the deserved attention of contemporary audiences.

The initial source of Alfano's (1875-1954) fame stemmed from his immensely popular operatic adaptation of Tolstoy's novel Resurrection in 1904, a powerful and moving work in the Puccini-verismo mold. It was sought out by most of the great sopranos of the day, including Mary Garden (at one point she even offered to purchase Cyrano's rights for her friend Alfano, who steadfastly refused her generosity). Although Risurrezione enjoyed some 1,000 performances in Italy alone by the 1950s, Alfano soon, like many of his contemporaries, broke away from the verismo style in search of a more advanced musical idiom inspired by Debussy. This quest resulted in operas like the lavish and complex La leggenda di Sakùntala (1921) based on the poetry of the Sanskrit writer Kalidasa (400 A.D.) and to Cyrano de Bergerac, which initially premiered at the Rome Opera in 1936 with Maria Caniglia as Roxane conducted by Tullio Serafin (to whom the score was also dedicated). Alfano's Balzac-inspired short opera Madonna Imperia had already bowed at the Met during the 1928 season. Unlike most of his colleagues, many of Alfano's operas conclude on a positive note of redemption, including Risurrezione (referred to by the composer as Resurrezione) and Sakùntala, which Alfano rewrote following its destruction during World War II.

The unfortunate occurrence that would later harm Alfano's reputation as a composer of operas, symphonies, and songs (to texts by Rabindranath Tagore), manifested itself when he reluctantly accepted the thankless task of completing Puccini's final opera Turandot, based on the deceased composer's almost undecipherable sketches. Although Alfano was aware of the "enormous responsibilities" that the completion would in fact entail, he nevertheless, in his good-natured way and with much prodding from those involved, accepted the challenge. Had he realized at that point that his name would unfairly become associated with this ill-fated "collaboration," eventually contributing in relegating his status to a mere footnote in operatic history, he would never have accepted. This is the reason why Alfano is sometimes considered to be one of the best and least known of composers, or, as Peter G. Davis once so tellingly wrote in Opera News almost two decades ago, "The Man Turandot Finished."

Following Turandot's premiere in 1926, two years after Puccini's death, Arturo Toscanini made heavy cuts of Alfano's efforts, thereby giving a distorted view of what Alfano had actually accomplished. It was this version that was later published by Ricordi and which found its way into opera houses. Months of effort that had led to a near loss of vision in Alfano's right eye due to the mental and emotional strain involved were suddenly erased, leaving audiences largely unjustly judging Alfano for a completion that only received its first entire hearing as late as 1982.

Over the years, Alfano held leading positions at various Italian music schools and conservatories, including Pesaro, Turin, and Bologna. Following his death in 1954 interest in his operas, like those of Mascagni, Zandonai, Montemezzi, Giordano and a host of other veristi, slowly began to decrease. Alfano, like many of his contemporaries, is only now beginning to enjoy a long awaited and deserved renaissance, affording present operatic audiences the opportunity to rediscover important and worthy compositions that are capable of enthralling the public with their combination of literature, drama, finely-wrought orchestrations, and intense emotional appeal. Works such as Cyrano de Bergerac demand exceptional singing actors capable of expressing the vocal and dramatic qualities that are so essential to their success.

The abundant richness of Cyrano de Bergerac's score can only fully be appreciated upon repeated hearings. The original play's largely trimmed text by Henri Cain (1859-1937), one of Massenet's librettists, however, enables the operatic Cyrano to emerge as the same grandiose, relentless idealist at odds with himself and the world, battling an emotional war of his own dimensions not unlike Don Quixote or some of Benjamin Britten's antiheroes. Similar to Zemlinsky's Oscar Wilde-based opera Der Zwerg, in some aspects also to Verdi's Rigoletto, and especially to the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, these works portray characters that transcend superficial judgments based solely on appearance, unlocking the poetry of a sensitive soul caught in an unappealing exterior.

One must credit Alfano for his ability to musically clothe an already famous play in a durable and equally important operatic idiom that adds yet another facet to the Cyrano we already know. It was important that the cosmopolitan Alfano was given the opportunity to demonstrate his mettle in a work that, like his earlier Tolstoy opera, was derived from an important literary source. His understanding of the subtleties of the French language was an enormous asset and a necessity for his adaptation of Rostand's popular play.

In the operatic Cyrano, Alfano has created an eclectic, tightly knit work for two tenors. with no overture, that presents scenes of great power and romance, choruses reminiscent of Mussorgsky, a superb love duet, and an overwhelming final scene in which the composer has fully captured the hero's heartbreak and despair. The score's sensitivity and detail is even reflected in such minute descriptions as Alfano's atmospheric musical depiction of Rostand's leaves of "Venetian gold" that fall to the ground in the final convent scene. The autumnal declaration of Cyrano's love for Roxane upon reading her his alter-ego Christian's letter following a space of fifteen years, is so brilliantly realized, that it remains almost impossible to forget and sorely missed when attending a performance of the original play. Alfano has fully captured the thwarted feelings and frustrations of an individual unable to live his desire and only having the courage of expression when it is too late. His flaws and innate humanity thus make him all the more sympathetic to contemporary spectators o the opera, as they did when the play was originally produced.

Next month audiences in New York will be able to judge for themselves when the operatic Cyrano de Bergerac is unveiled for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera, and, with the passing of time, Rostand may even risk solely being remembered for having inspired Alfano's opera.

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