Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Cyrano de Bergerac @ Royal Opera House, London

8, 11, 14, 17, 24, 27 May 2006

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

After his triumph in last year’s performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the King of Opera is back in London and this time he’s sporting a long nose. The title role in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac is Plácido Domingo‘s 25th portrayal for the Royal Opera, and whatever one thinks of the opera as a whole, there’s no doubt that the part suits Domingo down to the ground. Whether in swashbuckling mode, or romancing his beloved Roxane in secretly-written poems, Domingo is in brilliant form, both physically and vocally.

The point is not that he’s in great shape for a 65-year-old, but rather that he’s in great shape for a singer of any age. It’s difficult to think of another tenor who could give so immaculate a performance of the part.

His magnetic presence and golden tone remain the cornerstones of his performance style. Whenever he’s on stage, he seems to draw together all the participants and inspire them to give of their all. He brings so much to the role of Cyrano that it almost seems like a counterpart of Rigoletto, another complex operatic character tormented by a physical disfigurement.

Cyrano‘s composer, Alfano, is better known as the man who completed Puccini’s Turandot (due to return to the Royal Opera House in July). That aside, he languishes in practical obscurity, though one or two of his other operas remain in the repertoires of Italian opera companies.

This performance showed both strengths and weaknesses in the work. It has several very vivid scenes, the characters of Roxane and Cyrano are well-rounded, and the orchestration is admirable. His control of parlante technique is almost as good as Puccini’s, so that the prose libretto is set to a very complex background of orchestral effects, clearly inspired by the likes of Debussy, Ravel, and Richard Strauss.

Yet its shortcomings are hard to overlook. Most of the secondary characters are very two-dimensional; the action is minimal most of the time (though the laughable staging of the battlefield scene didn’t help); and there’s no denying the boredom of some of the score, which is overlong and static. There are highlights that make it worth the journey, however, such as the amusing wooing of Roxane by Cyrano pretending to be her other suitor Christian, the extremely moving final scene and the large choral tableau at the opening. All of these were despatched brilliantly, mostly thanks to Mark Elder‘s finely-tuned and sensitive conducting and the playing of the ROH’s mighty orchestra.

This expensive new production by Francesca Zambello is presented in conjunction with the New York Met. The sturdy (though sometimes clunky) sets are by Peter J Davison and the slightly old-fashioned costumes are designed by Anita Yavich. Zambello’s direction is high on atmosphere but low on psychology (though thankfully Domingo is around to provide the latter much of the time). The crowd scenes have a buzz about them, and the production is often exuberant. But somehow the sets are almost too lavish and as a whole, it lacks pace and grittiness.

Musically, it has its ups and downs. Roxane is sung by the American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and she made a superb pairing with Domingo in this, her ROH debut. Unlike most of the other singers, she has the vocal resources to ride the luxuriant orchestration, and in addition, she brought bags of pathos into her acting. The final scene, when Roxane discovers that Cyrano wrote all the love letters that she believed to be from Christian, was intensely moving, the trademark Domingo magic combined with the heartfelt anguish of Radvanovsky (who returns as Lina in Verdi’s Stiffelio next year, a part that should suit her down to the ground).

Almost as successful was the American tenor Raymond Very as Christian. He has a natural lyricism, but seemed rather bland some of the time (though the role isn’t the most inspiring). However, I was impressed by the De Guiche of Roman Trekel. His baritone projects well into the theatre, and he succeeded in making a small character come alive.

The smaller parts were cast with familiar faces from British opera, such as Clive Bayley, Frances McCafferty and Jeremy White, all of whom sang well enough but were rather anonymous figures on the stage.

It hardly mattered, though. It was quite simply Domingo’s night, and if the staging of a second-rate opera was something of an indulgence on his part, it’s impossible to blame him. Cyrano is one of literature’s most multifaceted characters, and in Domingo’s intelligent interpretation, he seemed like one of opera’s greatest characters too.

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More on Plácido Domingo
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Cyrano de Bergerac @ Royal Opera House, London
Die Walküre @ Royal Opera, London