Poor Franco Alfano found himself in a terrible dilemma: a high profile assignment that nonetheless was full of traps. He was cursed for completing Puccini's Turandot, a stressful situation in which no one was happy. And his grand, imaginative completion is almost never heard as he intended; cuts started almost immediately (there is some question of whether his "original" ending was ever performed complete). But in his rapturous work La Legenda di Sakuntala (1921), he reached heights that are as great as many of the composers whose works have stayed in the repertory. Here the orchestral textures are luminous, the harmonies fascinating, and the vocal lines soar. It has all the qualities one would look for in an Italian opera of the 20th century.
Alfano studied and performed in Berlin and Paris as a young man and his music is full of the sounds of his own time. Cyrano de Bergerac is a late work (1933-35), shot through with nostalgia and sense of regret. In the story of the opera, adapted from Edmond Rostand's famous play, the old is somehow set aside by the young and beautiful, but longing has no age, and like Roxane we have to wonder if we will recognize true love too late. Alfano might have wondered if the old muse of Italian opera was somehow being shoved into the shadows, just like poor Cyrano. His music has that particular longing that is part of the musical language of impressionists like Debussy and Roussel, and there is an ongoing intensely beautiful commentary in the orchestra.
Now that the Met is mounting this rewarding opera for the first time it suggests that maybe there's hope for other underperformed works. Thirty years ago the oratorio Messiah was George Frideric Handel's best-known work; that he wrote operas was known but the titles of those works were not exactly household names to most opera lovers. And certainly, no one could imagine the Metropolitan Opera producing one of them. Operas by Scarlatti, Cimarosa, and Kaiser were barely known and almost never performed. The three surviving Monteverdi operas were given mostly in festival situations and over-lush, heavily cut "arrangements." Who could have foreseen that the Met would have hits in 1988 with Handel's Giulio Cesare and this season with his Rodelinda, that a recording company would have a best-seller with a release of Scarlatti's La Griselda, or that the day would come when Monteverdi's operas would be performed in a historically responsible style in large theaters and would be well represented on recordings and video? It was beyond imagination that there would be, today, a cadre of singers prepared to sing these operas in a competitive way, and that some of them, like the countertenor David Daniels, would become stars specifically through this repertory. Whose crystal ball showed two reigning divas of our time, Renée Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, making entire disks devoted to operatic arias by Handel? After all, these operas are at least 250 years old!
But there is today a hunger for novelty among audiences and impresarios that often doesn't extend to the newest operas, but finds gratification in the past. It is curious that this taste has extended to operas very different from the bread-and-butter works of Puccini and Verdi, into the opera seria and the "dramma per musica." You would think that operas written in a familiar style would be more reassuring.
It happens that there is an entire repertory of operas written less than a century ago in styles that we can easily understand that remain essentially unknown. Composers like Alfano, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Riccardo Zandonai, Italo Montemezzi, Giorgio Federico Ghedini, and Ottorino Respighi from Italy, and Franz Schreker, Erich Korngold, Eugène d'Albert, Max von Schillings, and Hans Pfitzner from Germany, all of whom had major successes in their careers but who are today either ignored or subjected to grudging and occasional revivals.
There is a group of famous names, known at best by one or two works‹sort of like Handel and Monteverdi in the "old days"‹but whose bodies of work are matters of the outré: Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano, and Cilea. It might come as a shock to suggest that Cilea's L'Arlesiana and act two of his Gloria display a better composer than does his only regularly heard opera, Adriana Lecouvreur. Or that Mascagni left a massive output that includes some very impressive scores, including Iris, Isabeau and Parisina. It is doing him an injustice as an artist to know only Cavalleria Rusticana, or L'Amico Fritz.
Being forgotten is often a way of implicit dismissal‹how good could these composers have been after all? But that's not fair. Because they chose to write for the theater, they need a large apparatus to be discovered again. Even the lonely score reader, or the obsessive opera fan who will seek out the sole extant recording of a given work still needs a live performance to have a real sense of the opera. My first experience with a live performance of Iris, 20 years ago in New Jersey with Adrianna Maliponte was wonderful. And my introduction to Giordano's Fedora was also in New Jersey, with Magda Olivero in the title role‹no one could take poison as she could! The latter work had lain for years in the dustbins of operatic history, but has been newly experienced by many, thanks to the partisanship of Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo, and a production that traveled worldwide and brought the work back to the Met in 1996 after an absence here of 70 years.
One could say that tastes change. But do they? The Puccini and Strauss operas still are done everywhere all the time. A taste remains for verismo and its German equivalent. True, many of these unknown composers set melodramatic plots with colorful twists‹but then again television's Desperate Housewives is a huge hit. There is clearly still an interest in the theater for elaborate sexual entanglements and plots.
I think in many cases these unfamiliar works have only to be done affectionately and stylishly to seem wonderful and special. That was true for Handel and Monteverdi‹early recordings made soon after World War II tended to make these operas seem impossible, and, improbable as it now seems, boring. Moreover, so long as the Puccini operas are in the rep, it would be fairly easy to cast many of these works. And some well-known singers might enjoy a vacation from their most performed roles.
Take just the Italian school: these composers were influenced by Puccini joined with Wagner, with hints of the young Mascagni, usually in their early works. Thus Alfano and Wolf-Ferrari would have international hits in the stark verismo style of Cavalleria‹Risurrezione and The Jewels of the Madonna‹but grow out of that style in their later works.
Puccini was the only Italian of his generation to be completely open to the music of his time. He even looked into Arnold Schoenberg! And he was much influenced by Debussy and Ravel. But his younger colleagues were all international. Alfano and Respighi even studied in Russia. Zandonai and Montemezzi were highly sophisticated connoisseurs of what was going on in Germany and France. And Pizzetti was a scholar of Gregorian chant and Medieval music, as well as a thoughtful student of the new movements of his time. Each sought to combine what is called "Italianità"‹melody and vocal opportunity‹with challenging harmonies, surprising forms, and imaginative orchestration.
In several cases they succeeded. Montemezzi's L'Amore dei Tre Re (1913) enjoyed an international vogue for much of the first half of the 20th century. It is a work shot through with orchestral and harmonic imagination and has four wonderful roles. But it is interesting to read the scores of La Nave (1918) and his first hit, the surging and impassioned Giovanni Gallurese (1905). One can only wonder how powerful they would be when passionately performed. (Anyone who may have heard the 1941 recording of the Met's performance of L'Amore dei Tre Re with Ezio Pinza has an idea of the force of his music.)
Pizzetti had a long career. A tape of his alluring Fedra (1912) circulates with the great Régine Crespin; Debora e Jaele (1925) has an accumulating theatrical power and I was able to see his late Assassination in the Cathedral, which has a great role for a leading bass. Respighi became very famous for what is known as his Roman Trilogy, comprised of works that include his symphonic poem Pines of Rome that became orchestral, and later, sound equipment showpieces. But his operas have a similarly lush scoring, and a fine ear for melodies. One of the most entrancing works by any of these composers is Respighi's La Bella Dormente nel Bosco, a delectable fairy tale. Riccardo Zandonai was one of the most fascinating of these composers. He too wrote a verismo 'hit' when he was young‹Conchita. His Francesca da Rimini has a tenuous hold on the repertory, and it is a gorgeous score. But like most operas, these works need time to sink in and need to be done often with different casts. Certainly even a rarity by Zandonai, I Cavalieri d'Ekebu (1925) can make a powerful impression‹as it did when given by a small company in New York, four years ago.
With Cyrano now on the boards at the Met, and plenty of singers out there willing to take on challenging "new" repertory, the future looks just a bit brighter for works that haven't seen the opera house in quite some time. Who knows? One of these days the now-forgotten Ghedini may just be the "next big thing."