Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Edgar review – a Puccini rarity at Opera Holland Park

2, 4, 6 July 2024


The composer’s second, and least performed opera.

Edgar

Gweneth Ann Rand (Photo: Ali Wright)

Opera Holland Park has a long and proud tradition of bringing to public attention works by Italian composers whose own considerable talents were somewhat eclipsed by those of their contemporary, or near contemporary, Puccini. In the past it has presented pieces by Wolf-Ferrari, Cilea, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Montemezzi and Catalani, but this year, with 2024 marking the centenary of his death, the focus is very much on the master himself. Earlier in the season OHP revived its 2008 production of Tosca, and now it counterbalances the staging of one of his most famous operas with a presentation of his rarest, Edgar.

With a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, freely based on Alfred de Musset’s play in verse La Coupe et les lèvres, the opera premiered at the Teatro alla Scala on 21 April 1889, but was not warmly received. Puccini repeatedly revised it, cutting it from four acts to three, but, following a 1905 performance in Buenos Aires, he described it as ‘warmed up soup’ and ‘irredeemable’. Nevertheless, some of the music that he cut from it in 1891 was to be used in Tosca as the duet ‘Amaro sol per te m’era il morire!’, while its funeral march was played at the composer’s own, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Recordings do exist, including one by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from 2005 featuring Plácido Domingo. However, it remains Puccini’s least performed opera, with the UK premiere of the original version only occurring in 2012 in Lewes.

The story has echoes of Tannhäuser, since the protagonist is torn between sacred and profane love, and Carmen in terms of its depiction of the woman who supposedly embodies the latter type. Originally set in Flanders in 1302, it sees the pure hearted maiden Fidelia rejoice when Edgar, who has been living a life of debauchery with the wild Tigrana, returns to her. Tigrana tries to tempt Edgar back, much to the consternation of one Frank who loves her himself, but initially fails. After Tigrana mocks the villagers at prayer, they order her to leave the village. Edgar decides to go with her, but before doing so he burns down his own house and injures Frank in a duel.

Over time Edgar tires of his debaucherous life with Tigrana, and when a platoon of soldiers arrives, led by Frank who by now has forgiven Edgar, he decides to join it. Edgar subsequently falls in battle, but during his funeral procession in which the crowd praise him as a hero, a Monk who heard his dying confession denounces his sinful behaviour. The crowd are swayed into cursing him, with only Fidelia staying true and defending him. Frank and the Monk ask a grieving Tigrana to confirm that Edgar betrayed his country for gold, and she reluctantly agrees after they bribe her with jewels. When the soldiers, on hearing this, try to desecrate Edgar’s body, they discover it is only a suit of armour and that the Monk is actually Edgar! He goes to leave with Fidelia, the only person who remained loyal, but a final twist means that the story has no happy ending.

“For a semi-staged performance, the effects are strong…”

Edgar

Peter Auty & Julien Van Mellaerts (Photo: Ali Wright)

Ruth Knight’s semi-staged production exploits Opera Holland Park’s layout by frequently positioning the chorus behind the orchestra, and the principals on the part of the stage that lies in front of it. The chorus often confront us by facing directly outwards to sing, while the scene in church sees them sit on chairs that imply rows of pews. Its members wear black, which helps to draw attention to the costumed Frank when he leads his platoon as his red uniform really stands out. The stage areas in front of and behind the orchestra also suggest the division between the village society and the ‘outcast’ Tigrana, so that she often occupies the front of the stage while others judge her from behind the orchestra. Flowers are initially strewn across the floor to represent those that Fidelia gives to Edgar, and fleeting happiness because the fact they are cut means they will not last long.

For a semi-staged performance, the effects are strong so that when Edgar sets his house alight we gain a keen sense of something going up in flames, thanks to lighting designer Mark Jonathan. The production also treats Tigrana very sensitively by exposing, rather than condoning, the actions of the villagers when they treat her as an outcast. Three children play out the childhood of Edgar (Edward Courquin), Tigrana (Hermona Zeleke) and Fidelia (Anhelina Rubanets), which reveals how Tigrana is spurned and Edgar encouraged to favour Fidelia.

The City of London Sinfonia is conducted well by Naomi Woo, while the standout performances come from Julien Van Mellaerts, whose baritone as Frank is warm, precise and even in tone, and Gweneth Ann Rand, whose soprano is suitably impassioned for the role of Tigrana. Peter Auty and Anne Sophie Duprels give highly committed performances as Edgar and Fidelia, although his upper register does not always meet the demands placed on it, and her sound could ideally feel just a little smoother and less harsh at times. James Cleverton provides strong support as Gualtiero.

The main difficulty lies in the opera itself. The ‘dilemma’ between sacred and profane love provides a strong premise for the work, but once it is established it is played out in a rather awkward way. Technically, the story does have a beginning, middle and end (the three Act version is employed here), but the plot points seem so clumsy and arbitrary that they fail to explore the central premise in any particularly meaningful way.

The music is far from Puccini’s best, and does not even meet the standard that he achieved in his first opera, Le Villi. There are, however, moments in which we hear the ‘forerunners’ to later compositions. When Edgar enters in Act II one can vaguely sense parts of Tosca, and when we hear five soloists against the ‘backdrop’ of the chorus in Act I we detect the seeds of a technique that he was to perfect in later works. To an extent, the excitement derives precisely from seeing how his style developed, because the music itself is so inferior to what he went on to achieve that it is not especially engaging in its own right. Nevertheless, because the connections are there to discover, any Puccini fan should get themselves to Holland Park because there is still more reason to experience Edgar than simply being able to say you have done so. This is exactly the type of work that Holland Park should be tackling, and, in spite of the actual opera’s defects, this is a more than decent attempt at presenting it.

• Opera Holland Park’s 2024 season continues until 10 August. For details of all events and tickets visit its website.


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Edgar review – a Puccini rarity at Opera Holland Park